The wait has ended. Astronomers are enthralled by the release of the James Webb Space Telescope’s first scientific image. During a press briefing at the White House on Monday, US President Joe Biden unveiled the historic image, which is the most detailed astronomical depiction of the distant Universe. NAS released more photos on July 12.
Before its release, the initial image was closely guarded and demonstrates how the James Webb Space telescope can be transformed. In a piece of sky barely larger than that covered by a grain of sand held at arm’s length, it displays thousands of distant galaxies in the constellation Volans that are fainter than any galaxies seen before.
It shows “the oldest documented light in the history of the Universe, from over 13 billion — let me say that again — 13 billion years ago”, said Biden when releasing the image. “It’s hard to even fathom.”
“I’m just amazed,” says Vivian U, an astronomer at the University of California, Irvine. “I’m just panning through the image, figuring out what all the smudges are and why they’re there.”
The largest telescope ever launched into orbit, James Webb Space Telescope, is expected to change cosmological study. The early Universe, the evolution of galaxies and stars, and planets outside the Solar System are all covered in the first set of pictures that have been made public, including the deep-field picture.
James Webb Space Telescope – A Transformational Telescope
James Webb Space Telescope primarily detects infrared wavelengths, unlike one of the biggest and most well-known space telescopes, the Hubble. It can peek deeper into the cosmos than ever before by examining infrared light, which can pass through the dust clouds that cover newborn stars. Webb “is not Hubble version 2 — it’s a very different telescope”, says Zolt Levay, a retired astronomer and image processor who worked for decades on Hubble imagery. “It’s invisible light that we’re looking at.”
With how far away they are from Earth, galaxies can only be viewed at infrared wavelengths due to the expansion of the universe, which has moved their light from the visible to the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. This effect is prominently seen in James Webb Space Telescope’s initial deep-field photograph near the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster, which is around 4 billion light-years from Earth. Astronomers can see incredibly distant objects because the gravitational pull of the clusters bends and magnifies the light of objects behind them.
“The things that are catching my eye are the distorted galaxies,” says Lisa Dang, an astronomer at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “They look like no other galaxies that we know of.”
The first image from Webb shows galaxies that may have been before 13 billion years ago, almost at the time of the Big Bang that gave rise to the universe 13.8 billion years ago. It reminds us of some well-known deep-field photographs obtained by Hubble.
The first of them, taken over 10 days over the 1995 Christmas holidays, showed that a region of the sky that appeared to be vacant was dotted with thousands of previously undiscovered galaxies. In contrast to the weeks it took Hubble to study other deep fields, Webb’s first image took just 12.5 hours to put together.
James Webb Space Telescope is an expert in spectroscopy, which is the study of how light interacts with matter at various wavelengths. In contrast to pictures, infrared spectra of astronomical objects produced by Webb can provide chemical composition information. According to Elizabeth Kessler, a historian at Stanford University in California who has researched the aesthetic influence of Hubble photos, “that’s where some of the really exciting science will happen.”
The telescope was made possible by approximately another $1 billion in funding from NASA’s partners, the Canadian and European space agencies. After spending six months preparing its scientific instruments, James Webb Space Telescope was finally launched in December 2021; it will continue to operate for at least 20 years.