NASA officials have unveiled the first official images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest and most powerful orbital observatory ever launched.
The first batch of full-colour, high-resolution pictures, which took weeks to render from raw telescope data, were selected by NASA to provide compelling early images from Webb’s major areas of inquiry and a preview of science missions ahead.
The $9billion infrared telescope, built for NASA by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp, is expected to revolutionise astronomy by allowing scientists to peer farther than before and with greater clarity into the cosmos, to the dawn of the known universe.
"Every image is a new discovery and each will give humanity a view of the humanity that we've never seen before," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Tuesday, as he rhapsodised over images showing “the formation of stars, devouring black holes”.
Webb's use of the infrared light spectrum allows the telescope to see through the cosmic dust and "see light from faraway light from the corners of the universe," he said.
"We've really changed the understanding of our universe," said European Space Agency director general Josef Aschbacher.
A partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, the Webb was launched on Christmas Day, 2021, and reached its destination in solar orbit nearly one million miles from Earth a month later.
Once there, the telescope underwent a months-long process to unfurl all of its components, including a sun shield the size of a tennis court, and to align its mirrors and calibrate its instruments.
The introductory assortment of pictures had been a closely guarded secret until Friday, when the space agency posted a list of five celestial subjects chosen for its big reveal on Tuesday at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
An enthusiastic James Webb “cheer team” welcomed some 300 scientists, telescope engineers, politicians and senior officials from NASA and its international partners into a packed and lively auditorium ahead of opening remarks.
Hundreds of new stars.
Examples of bubbles and jets created by newborn stars.
Galaxies lurking in the background.@NASAWebb Deputy Project Scientist Amber Straughn details new discoveries about Carina Nebula. https://t.co/63zxpNDi4I #UnfoldTheUniverse pic.twitter.com/37mxH2GvfO
— NASA (@NASA) July 12, 2022
“I didn’t know I was coming to a pep rally today,” NASA Administrator James Nelson said from the stage, enthusing that Webb’s “every image is a discovery.”
US President Joe Biden got a jump on the unveiling with his own White House briefing on Monday to release the very first photo - an image of a galaxy cluster dubbed SMACS 0723 revealing the most detailed glimpse of the early universe recorded to date.
The images revealed on Tuesday showed:
- The Southern Ring Nebula, which is sometimes called “eight-burst.’ About 2,500 light-years away, it shows an expanding cloud of gas surrounding a dying star. A light-year is 5.8 trillion miles.
"Somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known."@SenBillNelson reflects on the words of astronomer Carl Sagan as we marvel at @NASAWebb's first images. https://t.co/63zxpNDi4I #UnfoldTheUniverse pic.twitter.com/eYGQU8egNv
— NASA (@NASA) July 12, 2022
- Carina Nebula, one of the bright stellar nurseries in the sky, about 7,600 light-years away.
- Five galaxies in a cosmic dance, 290 million light-years away. Stephan’s Quintet was first seen 225 years ago in the constellation Pegasus.
- A blueish giant planet called WASP-96b, with a signature of water detected in its atmosphere. It is about the size of Saturn and is 1,150 light-years away. A gas planet, it’s not a candidate for life elsewhere but a key target for astronomers.
Amazing NASA Space Images - In pictures
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.
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.