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The Year’s Most Spectacular Photos from the James Webb Telescope

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It's been both a punishing and triumphant two years for the James Webb Space Telescope. Launched on Christmas Day 2021, the $10 billion observatory spent its first 30 days traveling through the deep freeze of deep space until it reached its destination 1.6 million km (1 million mi.) from Earth. This region marks a spot where the gravity of the Earth and the sun neutralize each other, allowing the Webb telescope to hang stationary in space. Once in position, the telescope spent several more months bringing its hardware online and deploying a tennis-court-sized sunshield that protects it from solar radiation, chilling its instruments down to a frigid -266°C (-447°F). Such bitter temperatures are necessary because, unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which sees principally in the visible spectrum, the Webb sees in the infrared. Any stray heat would spoil a Webb image the way stray light would spoil the image of a traditional film camera.

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This year was Webb's first full year in service—and it paid off big, returning the following images and thousands more. The pictures are not just eye candy. They teach astronomers about how stars are born, and how they die; how galaxies collide and merge; how massive galactic clusters are created; why some stars, which should live for 10 billion years, die after only a few thousand; and more. With up to 20 years of operational life left to the telescope, there should be tens of thousands more images to come. Webb was designed, built, and launched to discover the unknown. Its Christmas gift to the world is that it's doing just that.

A pair of brilliant stellar nurseries located 1,600 light years from Earth, the Orion Nebula and Trapezium Cluster are home to a relative handful of very young but very bright stars. Four of the stars are easy to see with a simple, amateur, four-inch telescope. One of the four—the beast of the young litter—is especially visible, a full 20,000 times brighter than our sun. Apart from their four main stars, the Orion Nebula and Trapezium cluster contain approximately 700 additional young stars at various stages of gestation. NASA, ESA, CSA/Science leads and image processing: M. McCaughrean, S. Pearson, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
WR 124 (NIRCam and MIRI Image)
It’s not easy being a Wolf-Rayet star, like this specimen imaged by the Webb telescope at a distance of 15,000 light years. A rare species of stellar beast—NASA estimates there are only 220 of them in a Milky Way galaxy with at least 100 billion stars—the Wolf-Rayet burns hot and burns fast, with temperatures 20 to 40 times the surface of the sun. All of that rapidly expended energy causes the star to lose its hydrogen envelope quickly and expose its helium core. The result: a very early and very violent death. A star like our sun burns for about 10 billion years. As for a Wolf-Rayet? Just a few hundred thousand before it dissolves into cosmic dust. NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team
Webb’s near-infrared view of the Ring Nebula has a different color palette. This time, the nebula’s inner cavity hosts shades of blue and green, while the detailed ring transitions through shades of orange in the inner regions and pink in the outer region. Stars litter the scene, with a particularly prominent star with 8 long spikes in the top right corner.
If the Wolf-Rayet star dies an ugly and violent death, the celebrated Ring Nebula, photographed by the Webb at a distance of 2,000 light years from Earth, has been expiring beautifully. The glowing remains of a sun-like star, the nebula was discovered in 1779 by the French astronomer Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix. As the nebula throws off its outer layers of ionized gas, it reveals its characteristic blue interior, composed of hydrogen and oxygen that have not yet been expelled off by the nebula’s stellar wind. ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow (University College London), N. Cox (ACRI-ST), R. Wesson (Cardiff University)
A huge, dense field completely filled with tiny stars. Many galaxies of various shapes and sizes can be seen hiding behind the stars. In the center, there is some faint, wispy, dark red gas. A few of the stars imaged are a bit larger than the rest, with visible diffraction spikes. Two foreground stars are particularly large and bright on the right side.
Dwarf galaxy NGC 6822 lives up to to its name—home to just 10 million stars, compared to the minimum of 100 billion in the Milky Way. But what NGC 6822 lacks in numbers it makes up in spectacle—which the keen eye of the Webb telescope has revealed. Discovered in 1884 by American astronomer E.E Barnard, NGC 6822, is now known to have a prodigious dust tail measuring 200 light years across.. What's more, it's home to a dense flock of stars that glow 100,000 times brighter than our sun.ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, M. Meixnev
Webb's mid-infrared view of galaxy M51. A large spiral galaxy takes up the entirety of the image. The core is mostly bright white, but there are also swirling, detailed structures that resemble water circling a drain. There is white and pale blue light that emanates from stars and dust at the core’s center, but it is tightly limited to the core. The detailed rings feature bands of deep orange and cloudy gray, which are interspersed by darker empty regions throughout.
Spiral galaxies are often defined by uneven—and even ragged—arms. But not galaxy M51 which lies 27 million light years from Earth and is defined by the tautness of its arms and the compactness of its structure. M51 isn't alone in space. Nearby lies the companion galaxy NGC 5195. The two galaxies are engaged in something of a gravitational tug of war—one that the NGC 5195 is winning. NGC's constant gravitational pull is thought to account for both the tightly woven structure of M51's arms and for tidal forces that are thought lead to the creation of new stars in the arms.ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, A. Adamo (Stockholm University) and the FEAST JWST team
Billowy, multi-hued clouds fill the field of view. The scene is divided by an undulating formation running diagonally from lower left to upper right. On the left side, the clouds are various shades of blue with some translucent orange wisps throughout. On the right side, the clouds vary from bright orange-red to brown as you go from left to right. Here, there are two bright, prominent stars with eight diffraction spikes, as well as a star that appears surrounded by a jellyfish-shaped blob. Additional fainter stars are scattered across the entire image as dots.
Just below Orion’s belt lies one of the most celebrated objects in the night sky: the Orion Nebula, a stellar nursery that is home to about 700 young stars. This Webb image focuses not on the entirety of the nebula, but on a structure in the lower left-hand quadrant known as the Orion Bar. So named because of its diagonal, ridge-like appearance, the bar is shaped by the powerful radiation of the hot, young stars surrounding it.ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), and the PDRs4All ERS Team
Wispy hair-like filaments of pink-purple fill the middle of the image, curving left and right on either side of the center. On the right, the filaments form a dramatic loop that seems to extend toward the viewer. At lower left are additional yellowsish filaments. Two prominent, bright stars near the center of the image show Webb’s eight-point diffraction spikes. Dozens of fainter stars are scattered across the image.
A baby by stellar standards, the IC 348 Star cluster is just five million years old and located about 1,000 light years from Earth. Composed of an estimated 700 stars, IC 348 has a structure similar to wispy curtains, created by dust that reflects the light of the stars. The conspicuous loop in the right hand side of the image is likely created by the gusting of solar winds blowing in the direction that, from Earth, would be west to east.NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Kevin Luhman (PSU), Catarina Alves de Oliveira (ESA)
A crowded galaxy field on a black background, with one large star dominating the image just right of center. Three areas are concentrated with larger white hazy blobs on the left, lower right, and upper right above the single star. Scattered between these areas are many smaller sources of light; some also have a hazy white glow, while many other are red or orange. Even without zooming in, different galaxy shapes are detectable, like spirals, ovals, and arcs.
When it comes to galaxies there's big and then there's huge and by any measure, Pandora's Cluster—more formally, known as Abell 2744—qualifies as the latter. Not just a galaxy, and not even a cluster of galaxies, Abell 2744 is a cluster of four clusters, which long ago collided with one another. Located 3.5 billion light years from Earth, Pandora's Cluster measures a staggering 350 million years across. The cluster's massive collective gravity allows astronomers to use it as a gravitational lens, bending and magnifying the light of foreground objects, making them easier to study.NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology) and R. Bezanson (University of Pittsburgh). Image processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)
The background is mostly dark. At the center is a dark orange-brown circle, surrounded by several blazing bright, thick, horizontal whiteish rings. This is Saturn and its rings. There are three tiny dots in the image—one to the upper left of the planet, one to the direct left of the planet, and the lower left of the planet. These are three of Saturn’s moons: Dione, Enceladus, and Tethys, respectively. There is a slightly darker tint at the northern and southern poles of the planet. The rings surrounding Saturn are mostly broad, with a few singular narrow gaps between the broader rings. There is an innermost, thicker ring, and next to that is a brighter, wider ring. Traveling farther outward, there is a small dark gap before another thicker ring. In the thicker ring, there is a narrow faint band. There is then an outermost, faintest, thinnest ring.
Webb was built principally to look at the oldest and most distant objects in the universe, some of 13.4 billion light years away. But doesn't prevent the telescope from peering into its own back yard. This image of Saturn and some of its 146 moons, rivals the images obtained by the Pioneer and Voyager probes.NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Matt Tiscareno (SETI Institute), Matt Hedman (University of Idaho), Maryame El Moutamid (Cornell University), Mark Showalter (SETI Institute), Leigh Fletcher (University of Leicester), Heidi Hammel (AURA). Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI)
Red dual opposing jets coming from young stars fill the darker top half of the image. At bottom center is a glowing pale yellow, cave-like structure, its top tilted toward two o’clock, with a bright star at its center. The dust of the cave structure becomes wispy toward eight o’clock. Above the arched top of the dust cave, 3 groupings of stars with diffraction spikes are arranged. A dark cloud sits at the top of the arch of the glowing dust cave, with one streamer curling down the right-hand side. The dark shadow of the cloud appears pinched in the center, with light emerging in a triangle shape above and below the pinch, revealing the presence of a star inside the cloud. The largest jets of red material emanate from within this dark cloud, thick and displaying structure like the rough face of a cliff, glowing brighter at the edges. At top center, a star displays another, larger pinched dark shadow, this time vertically. To the left of this star is a more wispy, indistinct region.
Infant stars are born all over the universe, but the closest stellar birthing suite to Earth is the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, located just 460 light years distant. A turbulent—even violent—place, Rho Ophiuchi is defined by jets of gas roaring from young stars. Most of the stars in this comparatively modest nursery are more or less the size of the sun. But one, known as S1, is far bigger—so much so that it is self-immolating, carving a great cavity around itself with its stellar wind, the storm of charged particle's all stars emit, though few with the gale-force power of S1.NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Klaus Pontoppidan (STScI)

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com