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James Webb Space Telescope shows how sharp its images are and hints at exciting scientific possibilities

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spitzer vs webb jwst 1

A couple of weeks ago, NASA announced that the James Webb Space Telescope’s optics are fully aligned and focused, meaning that the space telescope is ready for instrument commissioning. Yesterday, NASA revealed a new image from its coldest instrument, the Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI.

MIRI has a camera and spectrograph, and it detects light in the mid-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. MIRI operates over a wavelength range of 5 to 28 microns. NASA writes, ‘Its sensitive detectors will allow it to see the redshifted light of distant galaxies, newly forming stars, and faintly visible comets as well as objects in the Kuiper Belt. MIRI’s camera will provide wide-field, broadband imaging that will continue the breathtaking astrophotography that has made Hubble so universally admired. The spectrograph will enable medium-resolution spectroscopy, providing new physical details of the distant objects it will observe.’

spitzer vs webb jwst 1
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (left), NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI (right)

The new MIRI test image shows part of the Large Magellanic Cloud. The image, shot at 7.7 microns, shows incredible detail. Compared to an image of the same small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way captured by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope Infrared Array Camera (at 8.0 microns), Webb’s Miri shows considerably more clarity, thanks to its improved technology and significantly larger primary mirror. Spitzer was one of the first to provide high-resolution images of the near- and mid-infrared universe, but it’s nonetheless incredible seeing how much better Webb performs.

NASA writes, “For example, Webb’s MIRI image shows the interstellar gas in unprecedented detail. Here, you can see the emission from ‘polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,’ or molecules of carbon and hydrogen that play an important role in the thermal balance and chemistry of interstellar gas. When Webb is ready to begin science observations, studies such as these with MIRI will help give astronomers new insights into the birth of stars and protoplanetary systems.”

spitzer vs webb miri gif
Click to view a GIF showing Spitzer IRAC versus Webb Miri

We should see many more amazing images of deep space soon. The James Webb Space Telescope team continues to set up and test Webb’s instruments, and full scientific observations are expected to begin this summer.



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