Humanity’s view of deep space will never be the same.
The James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful ever launched into orbit, has shown the clearest image to date of the 13-billion-year-old early universe, the US space agency NASA said on Monday.
The stunning image, released at a White House briefing by President Joe Biden, is crammed with thousands of galaxies and shows some of the faintest objects observed, tinted in blues, oranges and whites.
Known as the First Webb Deep Field, it shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, which acts as a gravitational lens, bending light from more distant galaxies behind it towards the observatory, creating a cosmic zoom effect.
Because light from the early universe has already spread out by the time it reaches us, NIRCam’s primary Webb imager, operating in the near-infrared wavelengths, focused attention on these dim background galaxies.
Webb assembled the composite image in 12.5 hours, far exceeding what its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, could do in weeks.
“Fantastic – galaxies after galaxies after galaxies,” Jonathan Lunin, chair of the department of astronomy at Cornell University, told AFP, cheering along with the rest of the global astronomical community.
“While by no means the farthest Webb can see, it is the deepest image ever taken and demonstrates the power of this remarkable telescope: amazing sensitivity, wide wavelength range and image clarity.”
Avi Loeb, professor of astronomy at Harvard, explained that the reddish arcs are ancient galaxies, while the bright circles and ellipses belong to a younger cluster of galaxies in the foreground.
He added that he was “excited” by Webb’s idea to take an even closer look at the Big Bang, which happened roughly 13.8 billion years ago.
The next set of images will be released Tuesday, revealing details about the atmosphere of distant planets, the “stellar nursery” where stars form, galaxies frozen in a close-collision dance, and a gas cloud around a dying star.
Biden expressed awe that Webb is documenting images of the universe some 13 billion years ago.
“It’s hard to even imagine,” the president said.
“These images will remind the world that America is capable of great things and will remind the American people, especially our children, that nothing is beyond our capabilities.”
The Carina Nebula, a stellar nursery, is known for its towering pills, including Mystic Mountain, a three-light-year-tall cosmic peak captured in Hubble’s iconic image.
Webb also performed spectroscopy – an analysis of light that provides detailed information – on a gas giant planet called WASP-96 b, which was discovered in 2014.
Nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, WASP-96 b has about half the mass of Jupiter and completes an orbit around its star in just 3.4 days.
Nestor Espinoza, an STSI astronomer, told AFP that previous exoplanet spectroscopy done with existing instruments was very limited compared to what Webb could do.
“It’s like you’re in a very dark room and you only have a little hole that you can look through,” he said of the prior technology. Now, with Webb, “you’ve opened a huge window, you can see all the little details.”
A million miles from earth
Launched in December from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket, Webb orbits the sun at a distance of a million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth in a region of space called the second Lagrange point.
Here it remains in a fixed position relative to the Earth and the Sun with minimal fuel consumption for course correction.
A marvel of engineering, the project’s total cost is estimated at $10 billion, making it one of the most expensive scientific platforms ever built, comparable to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
Webb’s main mirror is over 21 feet (6.5 meters) wide and consists of 18 gold-plated mirror segments. Like a camera held in the hand, the design must remain as stable as possible in order to get the best shots.
Charlie Atkinson, chief engineer for the James Webb Space Telescope program at lead contractor Northrop Grumman, told AFP it wobbles no more than 17 millionths of a millimeter.
After the first images, astronomers around the world will receive a share of the time spent at the telescope, with projects being selected competitively through a process where applicants and selectors do not know each other to minimize bias.
With an efficient launch, Webb has been estimated to have enough fuel for a 20-year lifespan, NASA estimates, as it works in conjunction with the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes to answer fundamental questions about the cosmos.