The universe is warped.
And you can see it in a new cosmic photo captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful space observatory ever built. Astronomers pointed the giant instrument, which orbits 1 million miles from Earth, at a cluster of galaxies around 6.3 billion miles away.
This cluster of galaxies, called SDSS J1226+2149, holds so much star and planetary weight that it’s literally warping space, like a bowling ball sitting on a mattress. The warped cosmic area distorts and magnifies the objects in the distance.
“This effect, referred to by astronomers as gravitational lensing, occurs when a massive celestial object such as a galaxy cluster causes a sufficient curvature of spacetime for light to be visibly bent around it, as if by a gargantuan lens,” writes the European Space Agency(Opens in a new tab).
Webb telescope just found massive objects that shouldn’t exist in deep space
Indeed, there is a giant cosmic lens between us and the objects behind SDSS J1226+2149. This natural lens, combined with the viewing power of the Webb telescope, allows astronomers to glimpse some of the earliest galaxies ever formed, born over 13 billion years ago when the universe was still young.
In the image below, in the lower right area, you can see poignant examples of distorted light caused by warped spacetime. These are the red, elongated shapes. In particular, there’s a red, “long, bright, and distorted arc spreading out near the core,” the space agency explains, an object dubbed “the Cosmic Seahorse.” Such powerful magnification allows scientists to peer into this galaxy and grasp the star formation inside this distant realm of space.
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In the bottom-right quadrant of this James Webb Space Telescope image, you can spy distorted galaxies caused by gravitational lensing.
Credit: ESA / Web // NASA / CSA / J. Rigby
The Webb telescope, which hasn’t yet operated for even a year, has years of unprecedented insights ahead. And it won’t just be looking at profoundly distant galaxies.
The Webb telescope’s powerful abilities
The Webb telescope, a scientific collaboration between NASA, the ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency, is designed to peer into the deepest cosmos and reveal unprecedented insights about the early universe. But it’s also peering at intriguing planets in our galaxy, and even the planets in our solar system.
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Here’s how Webb is achieving unparalleled things, and likely will for decades:
Giant mirror: Webb’s mirror, which captures light, is over 21 feet across. That’s over two and a half times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror. Capturing more light allows Webb to see more distant, ancient objects. As described above, the telescope is peering at stars and galaxies that formed over 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.
“We’re going to see the very first stars and galaxies that ever formed,” Jean Creighton, an astronomer and the director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, told Mashable in 2021.
Infrared view: Unlike Hubble, which largely views light that’s visible to us, Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, meaning it views light in the infrared spectrum. This allows us to see far more of the universe. Infrared has longer wavelengths(Opens in a new tab) than visible light, so the light waves more efficiently slip through cosmic clouds; the light doesn’t as often collide with and get scattered by these densely packed particles. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared eyesight can penetrate places Hubble can’t.
“It lifts the veil,” said Creighton.
Peering into distant exoplanets: The Webb telescope carries specialized equipment called spectrometers(Opens in a new tab) that will revolutionize our understanding of these far-off worlds. The instruments can decipher what molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide, and methane) exist in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets — be it gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will look at exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Who knows what we’ll find.
“We might learn things we never thought about,” Mercedes López-Morales, an exoplanet researcher and astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics-Harvard & Smithsonian(Opens in a new tab), told Mashable in 2021.
Already, astronomers have successfully found intriguing chemical reactions on a planet 700 light-years away, and the observatory has started looking at one of the most anticipated places in the cosmos: the rocky, Earth-sized planets of the TRAPPIST solar system. What’s out there?