US President Joe Biden has unveiled the first full-colour image of the cosmos taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, offering what NASA said was “the deepest, sharpest infrared view of the universe” ever taken.
During a ceremony at the White House on Monday evening, Biden said it was “an historic day” as the world’s largest and most powerful space science telescope offered a “new window into the history of our universe”.
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“Today we’re going to get a glimpse at the first light to shine through that window,” Biden said shortly before the release of the image, which showed bright white, yellow and orange lights that NASA said represented “galaxies once invisible to us”.
“Light from other worlds, orbiting stars far beyond our own,” Biden said. “The oldest-documented light in the history of the universe from over 13 billion – let me say that again – 13 billion years ago.”
The image will be followed on Tuesday by the release of four more galactic beauty shots from the telescope’s initial outward gazes.
It's here–the deepest, sharpest infrared view of the universe to date: Webb's First Deep Field.
Previewed by @POTUS on July 11, it shows galaxies once invisible to us. The full set of @NASAWebb's first full-color images & data will be revealed July 12: https://t.co/63zxpNDi4I pic.twitter.com/zAr7YoFZ8C
— NASA (@NASA) July 11, 2022
“We’re going to give humanity a new view of the cosmos,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters last month in a briefing. “And it’s a view that we’ve never seen before.”
The $9bn Webb observatory, named after the man who ran NASA during the Apollo space programme that put humans on the moon in the 1960s, was designed to peer through the cosmos to the dawn of the known universe, ushering in a revolutionary era of astronomical discovery.
It soared off from French Guiana on South America’s northeastern coast on December 25, 2021, before reaching its final destination 1.6 million kilometres (one million miles) from Earth less than a month later. NASA is collaborating on Webb with the European and Canadian space agencies.
The highly anticipated release of its first imagery follows a six-month process of remotely unfurling Webb’s various components, aligning its mirrors and calibrating instruments.
With Webb now finely tuned and fully focused, scientists will embark on a competitively selected list of missions exploring the evolution of galaxies, the life cycles of stars, the atmospheres of distant exoplanets and the moons of our outer solar system.
Built to view its subjects chiefly in the infrared spectrum, Webb is about 100 times more sensitive than its 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which operates mainly at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.
Hubble has stared as far back as 13.4 billion years. It found the light wave signature of an extremely bright galaxy in 2016. Astronomers measure how far back they look in light years, with one light year being 9.5 trillion kilometres (5.9 trillion miles).
“Webb can see backwards in time to just after the Big Bang by looking for galaxies that are so far away that the light has taken many billions of years to get from those galaxies to our telescopes,” said Jonathan Gardner, Webb’s deputy project scientist during a recent briefing.
The much larger light-collecting surface of Webb’s primary mirror – an array of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal – enables it to observe objects at greater distances, thus further back in time, than Hubble or any other telescope.
All five of Webb’s introductory targets were previously known to scientists.
Among them are two enormous clouds of gas and dust blasted into space by stellar explosions to form incubators for new stars – the Carina Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, each thousands of light years away from Earth.
The collection also includes two very different sets of galaxy clusters. One of those, Stephan’s Quintet, was first identified in 1877 and encompasses several galaxies described by NASA as “locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters”.
The other is a much more recent discovery dubbed SMACS 0723, featuring objects in the foreground so massive that they act as “gravitational lenses”, a visual distortion of space that greatly magnifies the light coming from behind them to expose even fainter objects farther away and further back in time.
How far back and what showed up on camera remains to be seen.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief, recently told reporters that with the new telescope, the cosmos is “giving up secrets that had been there for many, many decades, centuries, millennia”.
“It’s not an image. It’s a new world view that you’re going to see,” he said.