Webb Space Telescope first image reveals deepest view of universe
July 11, 2022
— The world's newest and most powerful telescope has captured the deepest and highest-resolution infrared view of the universe ever seen.
The image, known as "Webb's First Deep Field," is the first science product to be released from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). It reveals thousands of galaxies in a cluster that astronomers refer to as SMACS 0723.
"It's a new window into the history of our universe," said President Joe Biden at a White House briefing on Monday (June 11). "Today, we're [getting] a glimpse of the first light to shine through that window."
Launched in December 2021, the tennis court-size Webb Space Telescope was deployed over the course of two weeks as it traveled to its destination, the second Earth-Sun Lagrange Point, commonly referred to as "L2," nearly 1 million miles (1.5 million km) from Earth. It then took another four months to bring the telescope into full focus before beginning to commission its science instruments.
On Tuesday, NASA, in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency, will release the Webb's first array of full-color images and spectroscopic data. The White House previewed that event with the reveal of the First Deep Field.
"Light from the oldest galaxies, the oldest documented light in the history of the universe, from over 13 billion — let me say that again — 13 billion years ago. It's hard to fathom," said Biden. "Tomorrow, when this image is shared with the world, [it] will be a historic moment for science and technology, for astronomy and space exploration, for America and all of humanity."
Previous deep field images have been taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, including the "Hubble eXtreme Deep Field" released in 2012, which required more than three weeks of observing time to assemble. Webb's First Deep Field, taken by the telescope's near-infrared camera (NIRCam), is a composite made from images captured over the course of 12.5 hours while achieving depths at infrared wavelengths beyond the Hubble's deepest fields.
"Mr. President, if you held a grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm's length, that is the part of the universe that you're seeing — just one little speck of the universe," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told Biden during the briefing, which was broadcast live on the space agency's television channel. "You know, 100 years ago, we thought there was only one galaxy. Now, the number is unlimited."
"As you said Mr. President, we're looking back more than 13 billion years. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second and that light that you are seeing on one of those little specks has been traveling for over 13 billion years," said Nelson. "Since we know the universe is 13.8 billion years old, we're going back almost to the beginning. That is the discovery that we are making with this."
Webb's First Deep Field shows SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. The combined mass of the galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying much more distant galaxies behind it.
Webb's NIRCam brought those distant galaxies into sharp focus. According to NASA, they have tiny, faint structures that have never been seen before, including star clusters and diffuse features. Researchers will soon begin to learn more about the galaxies' masses, ages, histories and compositions as the Webb seeks the earliest galaxies in the universe.
"When NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, we were able to see the stars unobstructed by Earth's atmosphere and understand the universe in ways we could have never imagined even a few decades earlier. Now we enter a new phase a scientific discovery, building on the legacy of Hubble," said Vice President Kamala Harris. "The James Webb Space Telescope allows us to see deeper into space than ever before, and in stunning clarity. It will enhance what we know about the origins of our universe, our solar system and possibly life itself."
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has produced the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. Known as "Webb's First Deep Field," this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)
The previous highest infrared view of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)
President Joe Biden previews the first full-color image from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
July 12 update
: See below for additional images from the first James Webb Space Telescope science release:
This landscape of "mountains" and "valleys" speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)
The dimmer star at the center of this scene has been sending out rings of gas and dust for thousands of years in all directions, and NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has revealed for the first time that this star is cloaked in dust. Two cameras aboard Webb captured the latest image of this planetary nebula, cataloged as NGC 3132, and known informally as the Southern Ring Nebula. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)
The Webb Space Telescope reveals Stephan's Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies, in a new light. This mosaic is Webb's largest image to date, covering about one-fifth of the moon's diameter. It is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)
The Webb Space Telescope captured the distinct signature of water, along with evidence for clouds and haze, in the atmosphere surrounding a hot, puffy gas giant planet orbiting a distant Sun-like star. The observation, which reveals the presence of specific gas molecules based on tiny decreases in the brightness of precise colors of light, is the most detailed of its kind to date. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)