Astronomers and space fans have been waiting for this moment for years: the James Webb Space Telescope team has finally released a handful of stunning images, a tantalizing teaser of what’s to come.
NASA’s latest flagship space telescope, developed in collaboration with the European and Canadian space agencies, follows in the footsteps of Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra. The first series of spectacular images of nebulae and distant galaxies, as well as the spectrum of exoplanet atmospheres, highlight what the telescope can really do.
Even the Biden administration joined in the excitement, praising the Webb team and releasing an image on Monday, the day before. “This telescope is one of mankind’s greatest engineering achievements, and the images we will see today are a testament to the amazing work of thousands of workers across our nation who have dedicated years to this project,” said Vice President Kamala Harris at a White House briefing.
“It’s a new window into the history of our universe, and today we’re going to see the first light shine through that window,” President Joe Biden said at the same event. He then presented an image of a cluster of galaxies in vivid detail, cosmic structures so massive that they bend light, acting like lenses to probe even more distant objects of the early universe.
“This image is remarkable for the number of galaxies you see, and it’s not the deepest the web is capable of, so we’ll see more. This is definitely an appetizer, and the main course will come out in the coming months and years,” says Cornell University astrobiologist Jonathan Lunine of the JWST team.
The mission didn’t get off to an easy start: the nearly $10 billion project overshot its budget and endured many years of delays. And the name of the telescope continues to be a source of criticism; its namesake, James Webb, allegedly pursued homophobic policies while leading NASA in the 1960s. (Many astronomers prefer to refer to the telescope by just its acronym: JWST.)
After JWST was launched last Christmas, scientists moved it into place and began about six months of detailed work setting up and testing the telescope’s instruments, which include sensitive near- and mid-infrared cameras, as well as spectrographs, which break down the measured light into its wavelength components. . Now this work is bearing fruit, as exceptional images are arriving that allow astronomers to begin their scientific analysis.
New images released Tuesday provide a glimpse of what scientists can achieve with the powerful telescope. Research programs will use these images to measure the expansion rate of the universe, study the first galaxies to form, and probe what exoplanets are made of. As science programs develop over the next few months, a library of images will begin to accumulate on NASA’s public JWST website, Lunine says.
Here are some of those new images that NASA is releasing as part of the presentation. WIRED will continue to add images as they are published.
A massive cluster of galaxies
This image of the galaxy cluster known as SMACS 0723 reveals thousands of galaxies in the distant universe, in a region of the sky now called the First Deep Field of the Webb. It was taken by JWST’s near-infrared camera, NIRCam, showing the cluster as it looked some 4.6 billion years ago. It acts like a gravitational lens, bending light and bringing fainter and more distant objects into focus.
The spectrum of a giant exoplanet
JWST also comes with a spectrograph, which can probe the contents of the planet’s atmosphere. WASP-96 is a gas giant about half the size of Jupiter and about 1,150 light-years away. It orbits its star every 3.4 days. JWST can infer the presence of clouds and haze around the planet.
Dying Star Nebula
This image shows the spectacular South Ring Nebula in near- and mid-infrared wavelengths: a dying star ejecting waves of gas and dust clouds, which could later become material for new stars. Many of Hubble’s now iconic images were also of nebulae, such as the Crab Nebula and the Horsehead Nebula.