First images from James Webb Space Telescope reveal distant galaxies in mind-blowing detail

By Candice Marshall 13 July 2022
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Travel back into the early Universe with these spectacular images of the deep cosmos.

NASA has released the very first full-colour images from the James Webb Space Telescope, revealing galaxies formed in the early Universe, over 13 billion years ago, after the Big Bang.

Captured by the Webb’s 18-segmented gold mirror, specially designed to capture infrared light, these mirrors also allow the telescope to peer inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today. 

Earlier this year we were given a sneak preview of what the Webb was capable of, when NASA released a test image showing how the telescope’s mirrors worked together to take a a single unified image.

Among the latest images, however, is the “deepest and sharpest” infrared image of the early universe ever taken, says NASA, demonstrating just how powerful the Webb is when operating at full capacity.

NASA says this first batch of images “highlights the science themes that inspired the mission and will be the focus of its work: the early universe, the evolution of galaxies through time, the lifecycle of stars, and other worlds.”

“The release of Webb’s first full-colour images offer a unique moment for us all to stop and marvel at a view humanity has never seen before,” says Eric Smith, Webb program scientist at NASA.

“These images [are] the culmination of decades of dedication, talent, and dreams – but they will also be just the beginning.”

In addition to providing the public with extraordinary imagery, NASA has also released the first set of data gathered by the Webb, captured while aligning the telescope and preparing the instruments. NASA says the image-and-data set, labelled spectra, provides new information about some of the earliest galaxies to exist in the Universe.

Webb vs Hubble

(L) ‘Webb’s First Deep Field’, Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723; (R) The ‘Hubble Ultra Deep Field’, Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. Image credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI; SCIENCE: NASA, ESA, Steven V.W. Beckwith (STScI), HUDF Team (STScI)

The first Webb image released (left) was taken by the telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and is officially the deepest and sharpest infrared image ever taken of the distant universe to date.

Named ‘Webb’s First Deep Field’, the image shows galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, the same small slice of galaxy captured by the Webb’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, back in 1995, named the ‘Hubble Ultra Deep Field’.

The Hubble version shows around 10,000 galaxies, combining ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared light.

In contrast, the Webb version captures an incredible amount of extra detail in a fuller range of infrared light, including thousands of additional galaxies. Additionally, the image taken by Webb took 12.5 hours, while the Hubble image took almost two weeks.

The latest image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago.

“The combined mass of this galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying much more distant galaxies behind it,” NASA explains.

“Webb’s NIRCam has brought those distant galaxies into sharp focus – they have tiny, faint structures that have never been seen before, including star clusters and diffuse features.”

Full set of images

On 12 July, one day after releasing ‘Webb’s First Deep Field’, NASA revealed the full series of James Webb Space Telescope’s first images.

The collection (in the gallery above) feature cosmic features that have been elusive to astronomers – until now.

“Today, we present humanity with a groundbreaking new view of the cosmos from the James Webb Space Telescope – a view the world has never seen before,” says NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

“The Webb team’s incredible success is a reflection of what NASA does best… I can’t wait to see the discoveries that we uncover – the team is just getting started!”

Associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, added “This is a singular and historic moment.”

“It took decades of drive and perseverance to get us here, and I am immensely proud of the Webb team. These first images show us how much we can accomplish when we come together behind a shared goal, to solve the cosmic mysteries that connect us all. It’s a stunning glimpse of the insights yet to come.”

What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

The James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) is the successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

It is the largest, most powerful, and most complex space telescope ever built.

The Webb’s primary mirror is made up of 18 hexagonal-shaped segments, combined reaching over 6.5 metres in diameter.

It weighs over 6200 kilograms, roughly the same as a large school bus.

Protecting the Webb is a tennis court-sized (21 x 14m) sunshield that creates a difference in temperature between the hot and cold sides of the spacecraft of over 315 degrees celsius.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) inside NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, Washington. Image credit: NASA/Desiree Stover

Beginning in the 1980s, the project is an international project led by NASA, partnered with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency).

The aim of the telescope is to – over the next five to 10 (or more) years – study every phase of cosmic history.

This includes the most distant first galaxies formed in the early universe, other galaxies near and far, planetary systems (including our own solar system), the formation of stars, and everything in between. 

The Webb works by using new technology to detect the infrared light of distant astronomical objects.

It will record the universe as it was 13.5 billion years ago, a few hundred million years before the Big Bang.

In designing the Webb, many new technological advances, and new inventions, were made along the way.  

‘Ready for science’

An artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope in space. Image credit: NASA-GSFC, Adriana M. Gutierrez (CI Lab)

After launching on 25 December 2021, the first two weeks in space were spent unfurling the massive telescope, after the entire observatory was folded up to fit inside the launch vehicle, the Ariane 5 rocket. 

Simultaneously, the Webb was on its month-long, million-mile journey to its operational orbit, the Sun-Earth Lagrage point (L2) – a perfect place for astronomy as it is close enough to Earth for communications, can harness solar power from the Sun sitting behind it, and has a clear vantage point into deep space.

Then, the six-month commissioning process began. The many, many checks and balances included calibrating all instruments to the new space environment, and aligning all the mirrors – a careful process, the culmination of years of planning.

On July 12, with the release of the first images (captured during the commissioning process), NASA declared the James Webb Space Telescope ‘ready for science’.

What’s next?

The telescope’s official science operations have now begun.

NASA has high expectations for the Webb. Among their long list of goals is “to reveal new and unexpected discoveries to help us understand our cosmic origins, seeking to answer age-old questions: How did the universe begin? How do galaxies form and evolve? How do we fit in the cosmos?

What will the Webb discover?

Watch this space.