We can now see further, deeper and clearer into space than ever before.
The first image from the James Webb Space Telescope, released at a White House briefing on July 11, shows thousands of distant galaxies. The galaxies pictured here lie behind a galaxy cluster about 4.6 billion light-years away. The mass of these galaxies distorts space-time in such a way that the objects behind the cluster magnify, giving astronomers a way to peer about 13 billion years into the early universe.
Even with this celestial help, other existing telescopes could never see this far. But the James Webb Space Telescope, also known as JWST, is incredibly large – at 6.5 meters in diameter, its mirror is almost three times wider than that of the Hubble Space Telescope. It also sees in the infrared wavelengths of light where distant galaxies appear. These characteristics give it an advantage over previous observatories.
“The James Webb Space Telescope allows us to see deeper into space than ever before, and with stunning clarity,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at the July 11 briefing. “It will improve what we know about the origins of our universe, our solar system and possibly life itself.”
Although this first image represents the deepest view of space yet, “it’s not a record that will stand for a long time,” astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore said at a June 29 news briefing. “Scientists will very quickly beat this record and go even deeper.”
And this image is just the first. On July 12, astronomers plan to release the first images of a star birth site, a nebula surrounding a dying star and a group of closely interacting galaxies, plus the first spectrum of light from an exoplanet, a key to its composition. All of these images are a glimpse into what JWST will continue to reveal during its planned mission of more than a decade.
This first image was a very long time coming. The telescope that would become JWST was first conceived in the 1980s, and planning and construction suffered from years of budget problems and delays (SN: 6.10.21).
The telescope finally launched on December 25. It then had to unfold and assemble in space, travel to a gravitationally stable location about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, align its insect-like primary mirror made of 18 hexagonal segments, and calibrate its science instruments (SN: 01/24/22). There were hundreds of possible points of failure in this process, but the telescope was successfully developed and operational.
In the following months, the telescope team released image teasers from a calibration that has already shown hundreds of distant, never-before-seen galaxies. But the images now being published are the first full-color pictures taken from the data, which scientists will use to begin unraveling the mysteries of the universe.
For the telescope team, the relief to finally see the first images was palpable. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we did it!'” says image processor Alyssa Pagan, also of the Space Telescope Science Institute. “It seems impossible. It was as if the impossible had happened.”
In light of the anticipated anticipation surrounding the first batch of images, the imaging team has been sworn to secrecy. “I couldn’t even share it with my wife,” says Pontoppidan, head of the team that produced the first color scientific images.
“You’re looking at the deepest image of the universe yet, and you’re the only one who’s seen it,” he says. “It’s profoundly lonely.” Soon, however, the team of scientists, image processors and science writers were seeing something new every day for weeks as the telescope downloaded the first images. “It’s a crazy experience,” Pontoppidan says. “Once in a lifetime.”
For Pagan, the timing is perfect. “It’s a very unifying thing,” she says. “The world is so polarized right now. I think it could use something a little more universal and relatable. It’s a good perspective, to be reminded that we are part of something so much bigger and more beautiful.”
This story will be updated as more images are posted.