“It’s a new window into the history of our universe,” President Biden said. “Today we will see the first light that shone through that window.”
Launching on Christmas Day 2021, the $10 billion JWST is the most advanced telescope ever sent into space. At 21 feet in diameter and with 18 gold-plated hexagonal mirrors, the infrared telescope – the result of a collaboration between the US, Europe and Canada – can peer further and more precisely across the cosmos than any other instrument, far surpassing even Hubble.
For the past few months, engineers have been working tirelessly to get the machine, which is shielded from the sun’s rays by a huge sun visor the size of a tennis court, up and running. Positioned 1.5 kilometers from Earth, outside the orbit of the Moon, the telescope is now ready for operation. “You’re constantly pinching yourself,” says Mark McCaughrean, senior science and research adviser at the European Space Agency. “It’s so surprisingly good.”
The image presented today by President Biden is the first of four to be released this week, the others being images of two spectacular nebulae and a compact galaxy cluster. A fifth observation, a preliminary study of the atmosphere of a planet in another solar system, should also be revealed.
“It’s like putting on glasses for the first time,” says Wendy Freedman, an astronomer at the University of Chicago. Paul Byrne, an astronomer at the University of Washington in St. Louis, describes the image as “poetic,” revealing an array of star-populated galaxies and planets across the cosmos.
These test images are a small glimpse of what the telescope, operated by NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, is capable of. JWST’s first year of planned science observations includes detailed studies of exoplanets, surveys of distant galaxies, and expeditions deep into the sky and as far back as the Big Bang itself.
“This observatory is seeing things we’ve never seen before,” says Michael Menzel, lead mission systems engineer for JWST at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, “and it’s just in first gear.”