The first of what will no doubt be a future flood of images from the James Webb Space Telescope — which has the largest telescope mirror to ever be sent into space — was released today and it shows the spectacular deep-field world of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723.
The image shows the galaxy cluster as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago, the amount of time that it took for light to reach us. The combined mass of this galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying much more distant galaxies behind it.
Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (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.
What you are seeing is thousands of galaxies – including the faintest objects ever observed in infrared wavelengths. As a NASA release put it, this slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.
This deep field is a composite made from images at different wavelengths taken over 12.5 hours. The telescope imaged galaxies in infrared wavelengths that are beyond the distance and quality of the Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest fields, which took weeks to image.
This image was released in the White House by President Joe Biden. He praised NASA for its work — over several decades — that enabled the telescope and the images it will produce.
“We can see possibilities no one has seen before,” he said, “we can go places no one has gone before.”
The Webb has the capacity to see to the edges of black holes and of the very early universe. It is expected to revolutionize astronomy, especially regarding that earliest phase of the universe. It also has the capacity to see and read the chemical signatures in distant atmospheres of exoplanets.
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: “Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He began writing the column in October 2015, when NASA’s NExSS initiative was in its infancy. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.