The space observatory has been casting its powerful infrared vision across the universe for a year now. From its vantage point one million miles from Earth — and with 100 times the power of its predecessor, Hubble — Webb has discovered the earliest galaxies and supermassive black holes known to science, spotted sand storms on a distant planet, and detected a molecular building block of life beyond our solar system for the first time.
NASA celebrated Webb’s historic year by releasing the new stunning picture, above, on Wednesday.
NASA’s administrator, Bill Nelson, dubbed the image “an impressionistic masterpiece.” Vice President Kamala Harris called it “spectacular.” Marina Koren, a space writer for The Atlantic, said it “kind of looks like space is throwing up some more space.”
Webb’s image shows how stars are born from a dusty cocoon
The high-resolution image shows about 50 stars, in various stages of formation, in the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex —the nearest star-forming region to Earth — about 390 light-years away, according to NASA.
That’s close by in cosmic terms, which is why Webb could get such a detailed picture with no stars in the foreground to obscure the view.
“Webb’s image of Rho Ophiuchi allows us to witness a very brief period in the stellar lifecycle with new clarity. Our own sun experienced a phase like this, long ago, and now we have the technology to see the beginning of another’s star’s story,” Klaus Pontoppidan, a Webb project scientist, said in a NASA-issued press release.
The darkest areas of the captivating image are where thick dust surrounds “protostars” that are forming within, like a butterfly’s cocoon, NASA reported in the press release.
When the star busts out of its dusty cocoon, it creates huge jets of molecular hydrogen that almost look like a plume of glittery red lava — which can be seen vertically on the right side of the image and horizontally across the top, according to NASA.
It’s hard to see in the image, but NASA reported that some of the stars have telltale shadows indicating that a disk of material is swirling around them. Such disks will someday coalesce into planets.
The center of the image shows a glowing, cavernous formation that almost looks like a portal — a cave of dust that was created by a star much more massive than the sun, NASA said.