a look! The new JWST shows a billion-year-old spiral galaxy in stunning detail

In this latest Image from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), we see spiral galaxy LEDA 2046648 as it appeared as the first multicellular organisms clustered together here on Earth.

The spiral galaxy in the foreground in this latest image from JWST is a billion light-years away. Its light had to travel through space for a billion years to land on JWST’s mirrors last summer.

And the light from each of the thousands of background galaxies in this image — the tiny spirals, ellipticals, and oddly shaped smudges of light that dot the blackness around LEDA 2046648 — is older than that and reached JWST after a longer journey through the void.

One of the main science goals of JWST is to gather as much information as possible about the oldest galaxies in the universe. Astronomers want to understand how the first galaxies formed, what they looked like, and how they evolved into the large, complex shapes of galaxies we see in the near universe today. In November 2022, a team of astronomers pointed out two startlingly old galaxies in the first-ever JWST image, a deep view of the galaxy-studded universe. The two galaxies formed 350 million and 450 million years after the Big Bang, respectively, making them over 13.5 billion years old – the two oldest galaxies ever observed.

The JWST is good at spotting very faint, very distant objects like ancient galaxies, because it sees the universe in infrared light, whose wavelengths are slightly longer than those our naked eyes can see. Light from distant objects, which is moving away from us as the universe expands, extends to those longer wavelengths.

This image shows spiral galaxy LEDA 2046648 in the foreground, with thousands of distant galaxies in the background.STScI

Although this is the most recent image that the JWST team has processed and released to the public, it was one of the first images the telescope actually took. During the early summer of 2022, astronomers and engineers were launching and prepping Web tools to make real science observations. This stunning image of spiral galaxy LEDA 2046648 was part of the commissioning of the JWST Near-Infrared Imager and Slit Spectrometer (which was recently idle for two weeks thanks to a cosmic ray operation).

“Calibration images like this were critical to validating the telescope’s capabilities as it was prepared for science operations, and this image does not disappoint,” the European Space Agency says in a statement.

During the commissioning process, JWST operators needed to test something called parallel monitoring, which allows NIRISS and its Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) to monitor two different targets at the same time.

“This allows astronomers to interpret and compare data from the two different instruments, and to characterize the performance of NIRISS,” NASA says in a statement.

So while NIRISS focused on a white dwarf called WD 1657+343, NIRCam captured this stunning image of spiral galaxy LEDA 2046648 — and thousands of other background galaxies.

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