In January, NASA’s long-awaited multibillion-dollar James Webb Space Telescope reached its gravitational safe space millions of miles from Earth. In July it started to take our breath away.

One by one, astonishing vignettes of a glittering universe have graced our screens, each image somehow more thought-provoking and beautiful than the last. However, I would say that the seminal masterpieces of the telescope will always hold a special place in our hearts. The caramel-colored rocks of the Carina Nebula and the fairy dust-dusted galaxies of Stefan’s quintet are forever ingrained as JWST’s first dance with deep space and our first dance with JWST.

However, thanks to data collected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the agency was able to enhance some of these brilliant initial JWST photos — with positively electrifying results.

Here, a new and improved version of JWST’s Carina Nebula, the Stefan Quintet, and the deep field SMACS 0723.3–7327 from Image Set #1, as well as an updated iteration of the slightly more recent portrait of the Cartwheel galaxy.

These are the four composite images created by NASA with X-ray data from JWST and Chandra.


Cracking JWST pictures 2.0

On July 11, President Joe Biden presented humanity with its first JWST treasure, unofficially called Webb’s First Deep Field (and officially known by its robot name, SMACS 0723.3-7327).

Let’s first zoom in on the 2.0 of this brilliant exhibition.

In the dark canvas of space lie many colored specks representing galaxies.  Many look like streaks because they are distorted from our perspective by gravitational lensing.  In the center is a bluish haze representing Chandra's observations.

Composite image of SMACS 0723.3-7327.


Here’s what Webb’s First Deep Field looks like with just JWST observations.


When I first laid eyes on this deep field — after NASA’s obscenely long delay in revealing it, a wait strangely marked by the environment chillhouse music — my jaw dropped like one of those cartoon comic book animals.

It’s not stars you’re looking at; they are galaxies located about 4.2 billion light years away.

The distorted streaks in the center of the image are the result of extensive gravitational lensing, a phenomenon predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity and therefore visual evidence of the mind-bending principle.

But Chandra added to SMACS 0723.3-7327 a striking signature of superheated gas emitted by many of these galaxies—gas visible only in X-ray light and therefore undetectable by JWST’s infrared sensors.

Shown as a blue haze spreading from the center of the image, this gas reaches tens of millions of degrees Celsius and has an astonishing mass of about 100 trillion times that of the sun. NASA even estimates that the gas reservoir is several times more massive than any galaxy in this cluster.

Here’s what the same deep field looks like with just Chandra observations.


In a way, realizing the size of this region forces you to think about how Deep that deep field really goes.

Next is Stefan’s Quintet, a group of five galactic realms, four strung together by their gravitational auras.

The galaxies of the Stefan Quintet shine against the background of space, and distant galaxies are visible as small colored spots.  The bright blue hues toward the center are attributed to Chandra observations.

Composite image of the Stefan quintet made with JWST infrared and Chandra X-ray data.


Here’s what the Stefan Quintet looks like with just JWST observations.


The JWST data is shown in this photo as red, orange, yellow, green and blue bands, NASA said. Encoded in these hues, you can see galactic trails of gas and growing baby stars dotting the dark background of space.

But the piercing baby blue glow of the galactic crossing, right in the center of this image, comes from Chandra X-ray data.

Here’s what Stefan’s quintet looks like with just Chandra’s observations.


The observatory detected a shock wave that heats the gas to tens of millions of degrees, NASA explains, emitted when one of the galaxies passes another at a speed of 2 million miles per hour. The agency also points to some data taken by NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope in red, green and blue — infrared information like the kind JWST is working with.

Next, the Carina Nebula.

The rocks of the Carina Nebula are seen as coffee-brown, and the upper part of the image is blue.  Stars are dotted everywhere.

Composite image of the Carina Nebula made with data from JWST and Chandra.


Here is the Carina Nebula without Chandra’s X-ray observations added. Only JWST’s infrared lens shines in this one.


As a science writer, it never fails to make me smile when I tell someone about my work in our world after the launch of JWST and they immediately reach out to show me their JWST iPhone story. Or at least a saved picture from the telescope on their camera roll. Some choose the deep-field drama for their phone wallpaper (like me), but I’d say the favorite is JWST’s masterpiece Carina Nebula.

The Carina Nebula is actually a star factory where burning balls of gas are either being born or waiting to die, and this image is a magnified part of it. The JWST data largely make up the backbone of this portrait — the molten, red-orange landscape and the indigo area that appears to be “sky.” This is not heaven, to be clear. It’s not even blue in real life – space images are usually colored for scientific reasons.

The Carina Nebula, represented entirely by Chandra X-ray observations.


“These are mostly stars located in the outer cluster region in the Carina Nebula between 1 and 2 million years old, which is very young in stellar terms,” ​​NASA said.

And Chandra’s contribution here is how bright every star looks, NASA said.

According to the agency, young stars are much brighter in X-rays than old stars. It also means that the X-rays can help us figure out if there are any Milky Way galactic stars that are present in this picture simply because they fall in JWST’s line of sight.

“The diffuse X-ray emission in the upper half of the image probably comes from hot gas from the three hottest and most massive stars in the cluster. They are all outside the field of view of the Webb image,” NASA said.

And last but not least, the Galactic Wheel.

To the right is a bright pink galaxy, the main realm of the wheel, and to the left are two smaller galaxies also in neon pink and purple.

Composite image of the Cartwheel galaxy taken with JWST infrared and X-ray observations of Chandra.


Pure JWST view of the Wheel galaxy.


JWST’s image of the Cartwheel Galaxy came a little less than a month after the other three we discussed, but its reception was just as cheery. It’s easy to see why. I mean it looks like a cosmic glow in the dark ferris wheel. This shape, according to NASA, is thanks to a collision it had about 100 million years ago with a smaller galaxy, coincidentally the same catastrophe that prompted this realm to start forming stars.

Again, the original JWST image serves as the structure of this image, the blue and purple areas come from Chandra’s observations of superheated gas, individual exploded stars, neutron stars, and even black holes pulling material from companion stars.

The Colello galaxy as seen through the lens of the Chandra X-ray Observatory.


But in addition to offering us another stunning look at the universe, the collaboration between NASA’s JWST and the Chandra Observatory sets an important message in stone.

“Webb … will not continue the exploration of the universe on its own,” NASA said. “It is designed to work in conjunction with many other NASA telescopes, as well as facilities both in space and on the ground.”

Indeed, elsewhere in the higher dimension of telescope collaborations, JWST is working with Hubble to bring us an ethereal view of a dusty galaxy pair.

Perhaps one day the images from all our powerful telescopes will be superimposed to show us the universe in its purest form.

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