astronomers and space Fans have been waiting for this moment for years: The James Webb Space Telescope team has finally released some stunning images, a tantalizing preview of what’s to come.
NASA’s latest flagship space telescope, developed in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies, follows in the footsteps of Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra. The first spectacular images of nebulae and distant galaxies, as well as spectra of exoplanet atmospheres, highlight the true capabilities of telescopes.
Even the Biden administration joined the excitement, praising the Webb team and releasing a picture a day early on Monday. “This telescope is one of humanity’s great engineering achievements, and the images we’ll see today are a testament to the amazing work done by thousands of workers across our country who have worked on this project for years,” said White’s vice president Kamala Hari s said housing briefing.
“This is a new window into the history of our universe, and today we will glimpse the first light through that window,” President Joe Biden said at the same event. He then showed, in vivid detail, an image of a galaxy cluster, a massive cosmic structure that bends light like a lens to detect more distant objects in the early universe.
“This picture is very striking because of the sheer number of galaxies you see and it’s not the deepest that Webb can see, so we’ll see more. It’s definitely an appetizer, the main course will be in the future months and years,” said Cornell University astrobiologist Jonathan Lunine of the JWST team.
The start of the mission wasn’t easy: The nearly $10 billion project was over budget and experienced years of delays. The telescope’s name has been a source of criticism. Its namesake, James Webb, allegedly enforced a homophobic policy when he led NASA in the 1960s. (Many astronomers prefer to refer to telescopes simply by its acronym: JWST.)
After the JWST launched last Christmas, scientists moved it into place and began detailed work for about six months, setting up and testing the telescope’s instruments, which include sensitive near- and mid-infrared cameras, and a spectrometer that will measure the light propagate to its component wavelengths. Now that work is bearing fruit, and with the arrival of beautiful images, astronomers can begin their scientific analysis.
New images released Tuesday show what scientists can achieve with powerful telescopes. Research plans will use the images to measure the expansion rate of the universe, study the first assembled galaxies, and examine the makeup of exoplanets. As the science program unfolds in the coming months, the image library will begin accumulating on NASA’s public JWST website, Lunine said.
Here are some new images released by NASA in the presentation. WIRED will continue to add images as they are published.
a huge galaxy cluster
This image of a galaxy cluster, called SMACS 0723, revealed thousands of galaxies in the distant universe in a region of the sky now known as Webb’s First Deep Field. It was taken with JWST’s near-infrared camera, NIRCam, and shows star clusters that emerged about 4.6 billion years ago. It acts as a gravitational lens, bending light and focusing fainter and even more distant objects.
Spectra of giant exoplanets
JWST is also equipped with a spectrometer capable of detecting the contents of planetary atmospheres. WASP-96 is a gas giant about half the size of Jupiter, located about 1,150 light-years from Earth. It orbits its star every 3.4 days. JWST is able to infer the presence of clouds and haze around the Earth.