It’s been more than three decades since NASA built and operated a multibillion-dollar space telescope in space, so the James Webb Space Telescope has attracted a lot of attention.
Unfortunately, the Hubble Space Telescope’s primary mirror had been improperly polished. So if it The first picture was revealed in May 1990, the black and white result was not particularly impressive.
But the same cannot be said of Webb’s first picture, unveiled Monday by US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris during a White House event. “This telescope is one of the greatest technological achievements of mankind,” Harris said just before sharing the photo.
She was right. The picture (see here in full size) reveals the deepest and sharpest infrared view of the distant Universe yet – and shows just how vast the cosmos is. The area represented in this image is equivalent in size to a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone standing on the surface of the earth. This small speck of the universe alone contains thousands of galaxies of incredible diversity.
The new photo shows the cluster of galaxies known as SMACS 0723, an incredibly massive collection of galaxies. Because of this supercluster, shown as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago, more distant objects in the background are magnified by gravitational lensing.
From this image alone, astronomers can glean important information about the structure of these galaxies and tease out other details, including their mass, age, composition and more. The image shared Monday evening was a compilation of images taken at different wavelengths over a total of 12.5 hours.
Before that, the best “deep field” picture of the Universe was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. In 2009, NASA released an ultra-low-field image after combining decades of Hubble photos. The image is the result of Hubble collecting faint light over many hours, allowing it to show the most distant observable galaxies at the time. The image contains about 5,500 galaxies, and the faintest galaxies are one ten-billionth the brightness of what the human eye can see.
The Universe is about 13.7 billion years old, and the Hubble image looked back about 13.2 billion years in time, when most galaxies were smaller, larger, and often violently colliding with each other. Webb should be able to look even further back to identify the earliest galaxies that formed in the universe.
NASA plans to release four more images Tuesday morning as of 10:30 am ET (14:30 UTC). Highlights are expected to include an examination of the composition of a nearby exoplanet’s atmosphere.
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