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Starts With A Bang

Watch: The scale of the entire Universe versus JWST’s views

The glorious sights that JWST keeps revealing are less than a millionth of the whole Universe. Just imagine what else is out there.
JWST NIRCam Tarantula Nebula
The near-infrared view of the Tarantula Nebula taken with JWST is higher in resolution and broader in wavelength coverage than any previous view. It heavily expands on what Hubble taught us, and this wide-field view of our neighbor galaxy, the LMC, still showcases just 0.003778 square degrees on the sky. It would take 10.9 million images of this size to cover the entire sky.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team)
Key Takeaways
  • JWST is humanity’s most powerful astronomical observatory, revealing details about objects near and far at unprecedented resolutions in near and mid infrared light.
  • Yet each of its individual images, even the most famous ones, represent only a tiny fraction of the sky, as this ultra-deep observatory has incredibly narrow-seeing eyes.
  • A series of new visualizations put some of JWST’s most iconic images into context by showing them against the entire Universe. Just imagine what else is out there!

In July of 2022, JWST’s eyes unveiled the Universe.

This side-by-side view of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 shows the MIRI (left) and NIRCam (right) views of this region from JWST. Note that although there’s a bright galaxy cluster at the center of the image, the most interesting objects are gravitationally lensed, distorted, and magnified by the cluster itself, and are located far more distant than the cluster itself.

Even familiar objects showed details never previously revealed.

JWST Stephan's quintet
This contrast of Hubble’s view of Stephan’s Quintet with JWST’s NIRCam view reveals a series of features that are barely apparent or not obvious at all with a shorter set of more restrictive wavelengths. The differences between the images highlight what features JWST can reveal that Hubble misses.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team; NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)

JWST’s superior resolution and greater wavelength coverage outclass even Hubble.

Hubble JWST SMACS 0723
Compared to the old Hubble view of this portion of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, the JWST view is sharper, spans a greater range of wavelengths, and unveils and resolves fainter and more distant objects than ever before. Details that have never been seen or measured before in the Universe are suddenly available to us all.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI; NASA/ESA/Hubble (STScI); composite by E. Siegel)

With long-exposure times, it’s already revealed record-breaking faint, distant objects.

JADES deepest galaxies JWST
The viewing area of the JADES survey, along with the four most distant galaxies verified within this field-of-view. The three galaxies at z = 13.20, 12.63, and 11.58 are all more distant than the previous record-holder, GN-z11, which had been identified by Hubble and has now been spectroscopically confirmed by JWST to be at a redshift of z = 10.6.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), Leah Hustak (STScI); Science credits: Brant Robertson (UC Santa Cruz), S. Tacchella (Cambridge), E. Curtis-Lake (UOH), S. Carniani (Scuola Normale Superiore), JADES Collaboration)

But one limitation it possesses is a very narrow field-of-view.

JWST Jupiter scale
This animation showcases JWST’s unique near-infrared views of Jupiter. In addition to the bands, the great red spot, and the “atmospheric haze” visible at the day/night boundary of Jupiter, a number of moon, ring, and auroral features are seen and labeled. A single NIRCam or MIRI frame is just barely large enough to hold all of Jupiter’s disk within it, enabling spectacular views of this world with JWST. With an expected lifetime to last until the mid-2040s, JWST will observe multiple Jovian solstices and equinoxes, but won’t last until Uranus reaches its equinox phase.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; Processing: R. Hueso (UPV/EHU) & J. Schmidt

It would take 16.3 million NIRCam images to cover the entire near-infrared sky.

JWST field of view illustrative
This illustration shows the different types of images that can be obtained with each of JWST’s instruments and observing modes, and highlights the total viewing area and other specifications inherent in each instrument.
(Credit: JWST User Documentation)

The mid-infrared is even worse, requiring 63.9 million MIRI images to cover the full Universe.

JWST field of view instruments
This multi-paneled image shows the details returned by each of the JWST’s instruments in the same pointing/field-of-view during its commissioning in the first half of 2022. For the first time, in late April of 2022, all of the instruments across the full field-of-view were properly and fully calibrated, bringing JWST one step closer to being ready to begin science operations.
(Credit: NASA/STScI)

Larger regions of space can be imaged by JWST, but there’s a cost.

Preliminary total system throughput for each NIRCam filter, including contributions from the JWST Optical Telescope Element (OTE), NIRCam optical train, dichroics, filters, and detector quantum efficiency (QE). Throughput refers to photon-to-electron conversion efficiency. By using a series of JWST filters extending to much longer wavelengths than Hubble’s limit (between 1.6 and 2.0 microns), JWST can reveal details that are completely invisible to Hubble.
Credit: NASA/JWST NIRCam instrument team

Many adjacent and overlapping images need to be taken, spanning several different wavelengths.

This 10-frame animation shows each individual filter used to view the same region of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), with an assigned color RGB composite used to bring out various features available to MIRI’s unique view. The final-frame image showcases the full composite in RGB color; despite having more filters than human eyes can process, the data provides scientific information well beyond what our eyes can comprehend.
(Credit: Team MIRI; processing by E. Siegel)

They then need to be stitched together: creating a mosaic without gaps.

This image shows the region of study of the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES). This area includes and contains the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field and reveals new, record-breakingly distant galaxies that Hubble could not see.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb); Science credits: Brant Robertson (UC Santa Cruz), S. Tacchella (Cambridge), E. Curtis-Lake (UOH), S. Carniani (Scuola Normale Superiore), JADES Collaboration)

Revealing greater detail requires longer exposures, monopolizing JWST’s observing time.

JWST phantom galaxy M74
This three-panel animation shows three different views of the center of the Phantom Galaxy, M74 (NGC 628). The familiar color image is the Hubble (optical) view, the second panel showcases near-infrared views from both Hubble and Webb, while the mid-infrared panel shows the warm dust that will eventually form new stars at a later time, containing data from JWST alone.
(Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST Team; ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Chandar; Acknowledgement: J. Schmidt; Animation: E. Siegel)

But the science, and the associated sights, are well worth it.

jwst cartwheel
The Hubble vs. JWST views of the Cartwheel galaxy (and its surroundings) showcase a spectacular difference: the 1995 vs. 2022 images reveal how foreground objects, like interloping stars from within our own galaxy, have moved relative to the background features in these external galaxies over the past 27 years. In addition the JWST data reveals features that Hubble could never see.
(Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team; ESA/Hubble & NASA)

It’s incredibly impressive to see even a tiny part of the Universe in such great detail.

pillars of creation jwst
Over the timespan of 27 years, our view of the Pillars of Creation has not only expanded in size and resolution, but also in terms of wavelength coverage. The longer-wavelengths of light, as revealed in unprecedented resolution by JWST, allow us to see features that could never be exposed by an optical telescope, even one in space, on its own.
(Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; the Hubble Heritage Team; J. Hester and P. Scowen; animation by E. Siegel)

Inspired by this, visual artists at Perihelion created videos showing iconic JWST images, to scale, within the Universe.

cosmic cliffs
This three-panel image shows the view of the Carina Nebula’s “cosmic cliffs” as seen by Hubble (top), JWST’s NIRCam instrument (middle), and JWST’s MIRI instrument (bottom). With its first science release in July of 2022, a new era in astronomy has truly arrived.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI; NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

You can tour the famed Cosmic Cliffs,

the Southern Ring Nebula,

and Stephan’s Quintet,

while appreciating the enormity of the Universe.

jwst pandora's cluster
This view of Pandora’s Cluster, also known as Abell 2744, was constructed from mosaics covering 0.007 square degrees on the sky with 6 different wavelength filters from JWST’s NIRCam imager. Over 50,000 sources were revealed in this mosaic, which still covers just 1-5.6 millionth of the sky.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology), R. Bezanson (University of Pittsburgh), A. Pagan (STScI))

Imagine what else is out there, just waiting to be revealed.

JWST one active galaxy
This spiral galaxy, whose central supermassive black hole is revealed with JWST, represents just 0.8% of the mosaic released of Pandora’s Cluster, Abell 2744, from JWST. This deep view corresponds to only 1-700 millionth of the sky. If JWST could construct an image like this in a single minute, it would need to operate until the year 3354 to cover the entire sky.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology), R. Bezanson (University of Pittsburgh), A. Pagan (STScI))

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more.


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