Updated: Jul 12, 2022
The official beginning of a new era of seeing deeper into the universe than ever before.
July 11, 2022 President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson unveiled the first science-quality image captured by the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope on Monday (July 11) at the White House. The image is the deepest infrared view of the universe to date, according to a NASA statement, and was created using just 12.5 hours of observing time on one of the telescope's four instruments.
The image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. The combined mass of this galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying much more distant galaxies behind it. Webb’s NIRCam has brought those distant galaxies into sharp focus – 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 Webb seeks the earliest galaxies in the universe.
"Today represents an exciting new chapter in the exploration of our universe," Harris said. "From the beginning of history, humans have looked up to the night sky with wonder and thanks to dedicated people who have been working for decades in engineering and on scientific marvels, we can look to the sky with new understanding."
“This telescope embodies how America leads the world, not by the example of our power, but the power of our example,” – Joe Biden
"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," Bill Nelson – NASA Administrator said at the White House
Today's Image release marks the climax of nearly seven months of carefully orchestrated space operations since JWST launched on Dec. 25, 2021. The telescope spent its first month after blast off and stationing the spacecraft around the orbit at L2 (Sun-Earth Lagrange point) million miles away from earth,
Simultaneously, the spacecraft deployed from a launch-friendly compact configuration, including unfurling the massive kite-shaped sunshield that allows the observatory to study the cosmos in infrared light. The telescope also unfolded its golden mirror and spent weeks finetuning the positions of its 18 hexagonal segments.
Finally, the team behind JWST calibrated each of the four key science instruments, ensuring that each of the spacecraft's 17 observing modes worked properly. That work continued within hours of Biden's remarks, with the final instrument's last mode approved for science earlier on Monday.
The images released today and tomorrow mark the beginning of JWST's career as a full-fledged space observatory.
These listed targets below represent the first wave of full-color scientific images and spectra the observatory has gathered and the official beginning of Webb’s general science operations. They were selected by an international committee of representatives from NASA, ESA, CSA, and the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Carina Nebula: The Carina Nebula is one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky, located approximately 7,600 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina. Nebulae are stellar nurseries where stars form. The Carina Nebula is home to many massive stars, several times larger than the Sun.
WASP-96 b (spectrum): WASP-96 b is a giant planet outside our solar system, composed mainly of gas. The planet, located nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, orbits its star every 3.4 days. It has about half the mass of Jupiter, and its discovery was announced in 2014.
Southern Ring Nebula: The Southern Ring, or “Eight-Burst” nebula, is a planetary nebula – an expanding cloud of gas, surrounding a dying star. It is nearly half a light-year in diameter and is located approximately 2,000 light-years away from Earth.
Stephan’s Quintet: About 290 million light-years away, Stephan’s Quintet is located in the constellation Pegasus. It is notable for being the first compact galaxy group ever discovered, in 1877. Four of the five galaxies within the quintet are locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters.
SMACS 0723: Massive foreground galaxy clusters magnify and distort the light of objects behind them, permitting a deep field view into both the extremely distant and intrinsically faint galaxy populations.
The release of these first images marks the official beginning of Webb’s science operations, which will continue to explore the mission’s key science themes. Teams have already applied through a competitive process for time to use the telescope, in what astronomers call its first “cycle,” or first year of observations.