NNASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), released the first full-color images and spectroscopic data on July 12 from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a partnership between the three agencies. The Webb Telescope is the largest, most powerful and most complex space science telescope ever built and the largest and most complex observatory ever launched into space.
The Webb Telescope had to go through a six-month period of preparation before beginning its science work. Calibrating its instruments to its space environment and aligning its mirrors was required. The careful process and years of technological development led to these first images and data.
“As we near the end of preparing the observatory for science, we are on the precipice of an incredibly exciting period of discovery about our universe. The release of Webb’s first full-color images will offer a unique moment for us all to stop and marvel at a view humanity has never seen before,” said Eric Smith, Webb program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, prior to the images being released. “These images will be the culmination of decades of dedication, talent, and dreams – but they will also be just the beginning.”
Now NASA says the dawn of a new era in astronomy is here as the world gets its first look at the capabilities of the Webb Telescope. NASA released a set of the telescope’s first full-color images and spectroscopic data, which NASA says uncover a collection of cosmic features elusive until now.
“Today, we present humanity with a groundbreaking new view of the cosmos from the James Webb Space Telescope — a view the world has never seen before,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “These images, including the deepest infrared view of our universe that has ever been taken, show us how Webb will help to uncover the answers to questions we don’t even yet know to ask; questions that will help us better understand our universe and humanity’s place within it. The Webb team’s incredible success is a reflection of what NASA does best. We take dreams and turn them into reality for the benefit of humanity. I can’t wait to see the discoveries that we uncover — the team is just getting started!”
NASA says JWST’s first observations tell the story of the hidden universe through every phase of cosmic history — from neighboring planets outside this solar system, known as exoplanets, to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe.
“This is a singular and historic moment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “It took decades of drive and perseverance to get us here, and I am immensely proud of the Webb team. These first images show us how much we can accomplish when we come together behind a shared goal, to solve the cosmic mysteries that connect us all. It’s a stunning glimpse of the insights yet to come.”
Webb’s first observations were selected by a group of representatives from NASA, ESA, CSA, and the Space Telescope Science Institute. They reveal the capabilities of all four of Webb’s state-of-the-art scientific instruments.
“Absolutely thrilling!” said John Mather, Webb senior project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The equipment is working perfectly, and nature is full of surprising beauty.”
The release of Webb’s first images and spectra kicks off the beginning of Webb’s science operations, where astronomers around the world will be able to observe not only objects within this solar system but also the early universe using Webb’s four instruments, according to NASA.
The James Webb Space Telescope launched Dec. 25, 2021, on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, South America. After completing a complex deployment sequence in space, Webb underwent months of commissioning where its mirrors were aligned, and its instruments were calibrated to its space environment and prepared for science.
NASA Headquarters oversees the mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages Webb for the agency and oversees work on the mission performed by the Space Telescope Science Institute, Northrop Grumman, and other mission partners. In addition to Goddard, several NASA centers contributed to the project, including the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, and others.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has delivered the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe so far. Affectionately known as Webb’s First Deep Field, this is galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 (seen on page 66) and it is teeming with thousands of galaxies — including the smallest, faintest objects ever observed.
That Webb image is approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length, a tiny sliver of the vast universe. The combined mass of that galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying more distant galaxies, including some seen when the universe was less than a billion years old. This deep field, taken by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), is a composite made from images at different wavelengths, totaling 12.5 hours — achieving depths at infrared wavelengths beyond the Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest fields, which took weeks. And this is only the beginning, NASA says. Researchers will continue to use Webb to take longer exposures, revealing more of the vast universe.
This image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago, with many more galaxies in front of and behind the cluster. Much more about this cluster will be revealed as researchers begin digging into Webb’s data. This field was also imaged by Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), which observes mid-infrared light.
Webb’s NIRCam has brought distant galaxies into sharp focus — they have tiny, faint structures that have never been seen before, including star clusters and diffuse features.
Light from these galaxies took billions of years to reach us. We are looking back in time to within a billion years after the big bang when viewing the youngest galaxies in this field. The light was stretched by the expansion of the universe to infrared wavelengths that Webb was designed to observe. Researchers will soon begin to learn more about the galaxies’ masses, ages, histories, and compositions.
Other features include the prominent arcs in this field. The powerful gravitational field of a galaxy cluster can bend the light rays from more distant galaxies behind it, just as a magnifying glass bends and warps images, according to NASA. Stars are also captured with prominent diffraction spikes, as they appear brighter at shorter wavelengths.
Webb’s MIRI image offers a kaleidoscope of colors and highlights where the dust is — a major ingredient for star formation, and ultimately life itself. Blue galaxies contain stars, but very little dust. The red objects in this field are enshrouded in thick layers of dust. Green galaxies are populated with hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds. Researchers will be able to use data like these to understand how galaxies form, grow, and merge with each other, and in some cases why they stop forming stars altogether.
In addition to taking images, two of Webb’s instruments also obtained spectra — data that reveal objects’ physical and chemical properties that will help researchers identify many more details about distant galaxies in this field. Webb’s Near Infrared Spectograph (NIRSpec) microshutter array observed 48 individual galaxies at the same time — a new technology used for the first time in space — returning a full suite of details about each. The data revealed light from one galaxy that traveled for 13.1 billion years before Webb’s mirrors captured it. NIRSpec data also demonstrate how detailed galaxy spectra will be with Webb observations.
Finally, Webb’s Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) used Wide-Field Slitless Spectroscopy to capture spectra of all the objects in the entire field of view at once. Among the results, it was proven that one of galaxy has a mirror image.