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The James Webb Space Telescope isn't just for finding Pinterest worthy pictures, we're finding some amazing details in the sometimes blurry background photos.

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[ intro ] The James Webb Space Telescope has captured some truly  incredible images of our universe since it was launched in 2021.

Countless glittering stars,  dense cosmic dust clouds, and vast swirling galaxies  have all come right into focus. But we didn’t send JWST to space just  to bring us new desktop backgrounds… although those are pretty nice.

We sent it up there to help us do science and learn about our universe, which doesn’t always come  with jaw-dropping photos. So here are some groundbreaking discoveries that JWST has made possible that you  might not have seen on Instagram. More than 5000 planets have been  discovered outside of our solar system, and they’re made up of everything from  seas of molten lava to methane ice.

But aside from some broad observations, it’s been a challenge to  determine the specific composition of most exoplanets’ atmospheres. But now, thanks to JWST, that’s all set to change. Lying 700 light-years from Earth, Bocaprins is an immense gas giant  that’s 1.27 times the size of Jupiter, but with only about a quarter of Jupiter’s mass.

And this planet is insanely hot – like, upwards of 900°C – because it sits so close to its local star,  which it completely orbits every 4.1 days. And when it eclipses this star, some of that light is absorbed by or transmitted through the gasses in the planet’s atmosphere. JWST was able to detect infrared  transmissions that passed through Bocaprin’s atmosphere which helped  researchers determine its composition.

This data has given us the most detailed  breakdown of /any/ exoplanet’s atmosphere that we’ve ever been able to observe. ~ They found that its atmosphere contains water, sodium, potassium and even sulfur dioxide, another planetary gas not yet  seen in planetary atmospheres outside our own solar system. And, it’s the first evidence  for photochemical reactions, or reactions that are caused by starlight,  on any planet outside our solar system. Light from Bocaprins’ star splits  water into hydrogen and hydroxyl, and these molecules react with hydrogen sulfide in the atmosphere to produce sulfur dioxide.

A similar reaction on Earth produces  the ozone gas in our ozone layer, which protects us from most  of the sun’s UV radiation and makes our Earth habitable. So, photochemistry on exoplanets could  be essential in preparing them for life. If we want to find life out there, we could  start looking specifically at the planets where this is happening.

As it turns out, JWST isn’t just letting  us get up close looks at planets. It’s letting us see the stuff /inside galaxies/. Our universe is absolutely littered  with a type of organic molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.

And thanks to JWST, these PAHs may be able to tell us  how the universe changes over time.   PAHs produce bright infrared emissions when they’re excited by the ultraviolet  light radiating from young stars, which lets us trace the rate of star formation and other changing conditions in these galaxies. Researchers have long hypothesized that PAHs wouldn’t be able to survive in  a really high-energy system. Like, say, the kind of system  surrounding a supermassive black hole.

These are called active galaxies, and because of the supermassive  black holes at their centers, they can emit thousands of times  more energy than a normal galaxy. Infrared data from JWST allowed researchers to analyze PAHs in the heart of three  active galaxies for the first time ever. And as it turns out, that extra energy  isn’t as damaging to bigger PAHs as researchers previously thought.

The beefy PAH molecules can survive and  thrive in these extremely harsh conditions, even while their punier  cousins are probably smushed. So Why are PAHs so important? It comes back to that light they  give off when young stars form.

See, the role that supermassive  black holes play in star formation has been a bit of a mystery in astronomy. New simulations suggest that  supermassive black holes may suppress star formation, which is a pretty brand-new hypothesis. So if we can use PAHs to study  how many new stars are forming, even in high-energy systems like  those around supermassive black holes, they can give us clues about whether  the simulations really line up with astronomical observations.

Which is pretty /PAH/-some.~ JWST is also giving us an  up-close look at what happens when two stars love each other very, very much. This unusual JWST discovery involves  a pair of blisteringly hot stars that orbit one another, known together as the Wolf-Rayet 140 system. They’re surrounded by at least 17 concentric rings that look like a giant cosmic fingerprint, and how this fingerprint formed is fascinating.

The pair are located over  5000 light-years from Earth and consist of a blue  supergiant and a kind of star called a Wolf-Rayet, hence the system’s name. These star-crossed lovers won’t  be dancing forever though. Wolf-Rayet stars are so massive that they burn  up their fuel and collapse into black holes, or even explode in supernovas, in only a few hundred thousands years.

To put that into context, our Sun is  around 4 and a half /billion/ years old, and still kicking, meaning Wolf-Rayet  stars are like cosmic fruit flies. And, while all stars emit  streams of particles into space, the stellar winds from Wolf-Rayet  stars push out huge amounts of gasses and shoot out those particles along with them. Most are lightweight elements like helium, but sometimes heavier things like  carbon manage to hitch a ride too.

Researchers figured out that when  the two stars in Wolf-Rayet 140 approach each other every eight years, the heavier carbon gasses are compressed  into tiny particles of solid material where their winds meet. The dense shells of carbon-rich  dust are then pushed out into space at a high speed by radiation pressure, forming those fingerprint rings we can see. And what’s more, this sequence of events might  be the start of a process that could make a super  condensed cloud of dust and gas, ready to collapse and make up future stars.  So these two lovers dancing up in  the sky might be the first step in the formation of some pretty /stellar/ stuff.

Okay, we have one last discovery  that this ‘scope has made possible, and this one happens to involve  a jaw-droppingly beautiful image. But that’s just a bonus. This is the first deep-field image taken by JWST, a tiny patch of sky boasting a  dense array of glittering galaxies.

This one here has been dubbed the “Sparkler” since researchers thought the smaller  yellow and red dots surrounding it look like little sparkles. And while the Sparkler is a thing of beauty, a group of 5 of these unassuming  little sparkles may be home to some of the most ancient  stars we’ve ever observed. They’re called globular clusters, and they’re dense collections of thousands or even millions of the oldest  stars that surround galaxies.

At least four of those globular  clusters are about 4 billion years old by the time we can see them with JWST. But because they’re so far away, it’s taken around 9 billion years  for their light to reach us. So the oldest stars in the clusters  could have formed /13 billion/ years ago.

For reference, the entire universe  is around 13.8 billion years old, making these clusters some of the  oldest stars /in the universe/. Most people might be more interested  in their super pretty friend, but there’s a super interesting story going on with the background characters  in this stellar picture. Despite all the excitement  surrounding JWST’s images, it’s important to remember that science isn’t always a  pretty or aesthetic process.

And while it can be rare for a  discovery to be Pinterest-worthy, that doesn’t make the ugly duckling  discoveries any less important. So next time you see some jaw-dropping  pics of space on Instagram, spare a thought for those less-photogenic   discoveries that expand our  knowledge of the universe. If you liked this video and want to learn more about cutting-edge discoveries about our universe, check out our round-up of some of  the Space Superlatives of 2022.

Thanks for watching! [ outro ]