NASA unveils first images from James Webb Space Telescope

The dimmer star at the center of this scene of the Southern Ring Nebula 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.
The dimmer star at the center of this scene of the Southern Ring Nebula 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. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI/NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and The ERO Production Team)

NASA on Tuesday released the first set of full-color images and data obtained by the revolutionary $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, and it is quite the cosmic show: colliding galaxies, a dying star shedding itself layer by layer, a glorious stellar nursery and the intriguing signs of water vapor and clouds on a giant planet whirling around a faraway star.

The telescope appears to be even more powerful than the people who dreamed it up had hoped. It is able to see further into the depths of space and time than the acclaimed Hubble, collecting the exquisitely faint infrared light emitted by the first stars and galaxies more than 13 billion years ago.

“It sees things that I never dreamed were out there,” senior project scientist John Mather, a Nobel laureate who started working on the telescope in 1995, said after the unveiling of the images.

The Webb project has been a long and difficult journey filled with hazards, but it has produced spectacular images that the space agency and its international partners are eager to share with the world.

Hundreds of people — scientists, engineers, members of Congress — gathered in an auditorium at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., for the big reveal. Goddard interns waved pompoms and cheered as VIPs entered the room. NASA put on a live-streamed show, largely beamed out of a studio nearby, but with an international flavor, featuring scientists in Canada and Europe and cutting briefly to watch parties held by space buffs across the planet.

Project manager Bill Ochs expressed relief, saying before the start of the ceremony: “I always expected to have a few little gotchas — things that come and along and bite you.”

But nothing bit.

All the things that can go wrong with a complex mission like this are just old news at this point, mission systems engineer Mike Menzel said. “The new news is that the telescope right now is performing twice as good as we expected,” he said.

The Webb’s five initial “targets” are:

Wasp-96 b

This is a giant, hot, steamy planet, maybe half the mass of Jupiter, that circles a star 1,150 light-years from Earth. It is so close to the star that it makes a full orbit in 3½ days. That is far too close to be resolved as an individual object, but an instrument on the telescope has obtained the spectra of the planet, showing the presence of water vapor and signs that the planet is enveloped in clouds and haze. The same technique can be used to study atmospheres on smaller, rockier planets that orbit their parent star in the “habitable zone” where water could be liquid on the surface — as it is on Earth.


Southern Ring Nebula

Located about 2,000 light-years away, the nebula is formed by a star in its death throes. The image is paradoxically a beauty, a blue swimming hole in space. The foamy outer fringes come from waves of matter violently expelled by the star in its old age as it pulses and sheds itself into interstellar space. The image includes an ambiguous streak on the left side that astronomers came to realize is a distant galaxy.


Stephan’s Quintet

Five galaxies, four of them in a gravitationally bound cluster about 290 million light-years away in the constellation Pegasus. Two of the galaxies are in the process of colliding. A third has a supermassive black hole at the center, similar to but several times the size of the one at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. The image also shows numerous extremely distant galaxies behind the quintet.


Carina Nebula

The dramatic image echoes the famous Pillars of Creation seen by the Hubble and has been given a similarly flamboyant name: the Cosmic Cliffs. The vast nebula brings to mind a rugged landscape on Earth. It is a star-forming region with a cliff-like structure caused by the intense ultraviolet radiation emitting from hot young stars outside the frame of the image. It is roughly 7,500 light-years from Earth, within our own Milky Way galaxy.


SMACS 0723

The Webb’s deepest look into space and back in time. The cluster of galaxies functions as a massive gravitational lens and magnifies distant objects behind it — including thousands of other galaxies. Scientists said one of them, a little red dot, is a galaxy that emitted its light 13.1 billion years ago.


The image of SMACS 0723 was revealed Monday in a White House ceremony by President Biden and top NASA officials, and it was a doozy, capturing the faint light of galaxies forming in the infancy of the cosmos.

“We’re looking back more than 13 billion years,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at the event. “Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, and that light that you are seeing from one of those little specks has been traveling for over 13 billion years.”

He added: “And by the way, we’re going back further. Because this is just the first image. … We’re going back almost to the beginning.”

That first image demonstrated Webb’s superiority as a space telescope. The image is what is known as a “deep field” observation, with the telescope staring at what NASA called a “patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.” It looks remarkably like a famous deep field image that Hubble obtained more than two decades ago by staring at the same dark patch of space for 10 days.

“With Webb, we took that image before breakfast,” operations project scientist Jane Rigby boasted Tuesday when NASA showed it to the world again.

The first images and data from the James Webb Space Telescope were released on July 12 by NASA. (Video: The Washington Post)

“The universe, it’s been out there. We just had to build a telescope to go see what was there,” she added later at a news briefing.

Space when viewed in a deep field image looks incredibly crowded — not so very spacious at all. What the Webb sees through this pinhole examination of the cosmic darkness is a hornet’s nest of brilliant but enigmatic objects in many colors. A smattering of stars have parked themselves in the foreground, but everything else is a galaxy — a vast agglomeration of stars, rendered into a small splash of light by the immense distances involved.

Strikingly, the lensing effect has distorted some of the distant galaxies in the background, making them appear stretched and manipulated, as if made of Play-Doh.

“It’s astounding,” Biden said, expressing awe at the sight of “the oldest documented light in the history of the universe — from over 13 billion — let me say it again — over 13 billion years ago.”

The White House described the image as the “highest-resolution images of the infrared universe ever captured.” The Webb is designed to observe in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, gathering light at wavelengths inaccessible to the Hubble telescope. The Webb’s data has undergone processing to create images that translate the infrared colors into colors that humans can see.

NASA and its partners, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, had been keeping a close hold on the first Webb images during the initial sequence of observations as the telescope, launched last Christmas, orbits the sun roughly a million miles from Earth. NASA had previously released a few testing-phase images of the telescope — thrilling astronomers with their clarity — but has described the images released Monday and Tuesday as the first full-color images.

The astronomical community is buzzing with excitement, awaiting what it believes will be revolutionary views of the universe across cosmic distances and with unrivaled resolution. The Webb promises to study planets that orbit distant stars, looking for signs of possible habitability — such as the presence of an atmosphere similar to Earth’s.

“You’re going to see whether or not planets, because of the chemical composition that we can determine with this telescope, of their atmosphere, if those planets are habitable,” Nelson said.

The telescope — conceived as the successor to the still-operational Hubble — “has capabilities that far surpass my most optimistic dreams,” Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz who in the late 1980s was instrumental in developing plans for an infrared space telescope, wrote in an email to fellow astronomers Monday. “The capabilities of Webb are truly out of this world.”

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will open a new window on the cosmos — if everything goes just right

The initial deep look into the universe by the Webb is just a taste of what is to come, said planetary astronomer Heidi Hammel, who is among the scientists scheduled to use the Webb in coming months. Hammel described the initial deep look unveiled Monday as “proof of concept … whetting our appetite for the record-breaking results we now know will come from this exceptional facility.”

Regardless of whatever wow factor is generated by the new images, the significant fact is that the Webb works. This was never a slam-dunk mission. The telescope was repeatedly delayed, and its price tag soared. At one point, Congress nearly killed the project. For many years, it was unclear whether the Webb would get off the ground, literally.

The ambitious scientific goals set out by NASA and its partners required a revolutionary design. The scientists who in the 1980s began advocating what was originally called the Next Generation Space Telescope argued that an infrared space observatory would be able to peer deeper into the universe — and further back in time to an era roughly a few hundred million years after the big bang. That’s when the first stars ignited and starlight flooded the young universe.

The telescope — or the “observatory,” as scientists often call it — features 18 gold-plated, hexagonal, individually maneuverable mirrors that function like a single mirror about 21 feet across. This giant light bucket is not inside a protective tube but rather is open to the universe like a flower.

The mirrors, cameras and other instruments that need to be kept ultracold for infrared astronomy are protected from the sun’s radiation by a five-layer, tennis-court-size sun shield. The sun shield and many other components, including the mirrors, were folded up at launch and had to be deployed during the telescope’s nearly month-long journey to its orbital post.

A cold, clear eye on the heavens

The James Webb Space Telescope observes in the infrared portion of the spectrum, which requires the mirrors, cameras and other instruments to remain at extremely cold temperatures — not far above absolute zero. As a result, the telescope requires

a massive sun shield to protect against

solar radiation.

Science

instrument

module containing cameras used in these images

18-segment

primary mirror

Light from

distant stars

Secondary

mirror

Human

for scale

Multilayer

sun shield

Spacecraft control

machinery

Earth-pointing

antenna

Solar power

array

10 FEET

Sources: NASA; Space Telescope Science Institute

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

A cold, clear eye on the heavens

The James Webb Space Telescope observes in the infrared portion of the spectrum, which requires the mirrors, cameras and other instruments to remain at extremely cold temperatures — not far above absolute zero. As a result, the telescope requires a massive sun shield to protect against solar radiation.

Science

instrument

module containing cameras used in these images

18-segment

primary mirror

Human

for scale

Light from

distant stars

Secondary

mirror

Solar power

array

Multilayer

sun shield

Earth-pointing antenna

Spacecraft control

machinery

10 FEET

Sources: NASA; Space Telescope Science Institute

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

A cold, clear eye on the heavens

The James Webb Space Telescope observes in the infrared portion of the spectrum, which requires the mirrors, cameras and other instruments to remain at extremely cold temperatures — not far above absolute zero. As a result, the telescope requires a massive sun shield to protect against solar radiation.

Science

instrument

module containing cameras used in these images

18-segment

primary mirror

Human

for scale

Light from distant stars

Secondary

mirror

Multilayer sun shield

Solar power

array

Spacecraft control

machinery

10 FEET

Earth-pointing antenna

Sources: NASA; Space Telescope Science Institute

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

Seeing the universe

through a broader spectrum

Peering into space with just our eyes shows us the optical portion of the electromagnetic spectrum – a fraction of the energy in the universe, often obscured by interstellar dust and gases. The James Webb telescope’s ability to see far into the infrared spectrum will afford scientists a clearer view into the deep cosmos than has been possible before.

ELECTROMAGNETIC SPECTRUM

Radio

Microwave

Spitzer

Space

Telescope

(retired)

Infrared

James

Webb

Space

Telescope

Optical

spectrum

Hubble

Space

Telescope

Ultraviolet

X-ray

Gamma

Sources: NASA; European Space Agency;

Space Telescope Science Institute

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

Seeing the universe

through a broader spectrum

Seeing the universe

through a broader spectrum

Peering into space with just our eyes shows us the optical portion of the electromagnetic spectrum – a fraction of the energy in the universe, often obscured by interstellar dust and gases. The James Webb telescope’s ability to see far into the infrared spectrum will afford scientists a clearer view into the deep cosmos than has been possible before.

ELECTROMAGNETIC SPECTRUM

Radio

Microwave

Spitzer Space

Telescope

Spitzer Space

Telescope

(retired)

Infrared

James Webb

Space Telescope

Optical

spectrum

Hubble Space

Telescope

Ultraviolet

X-ray

Gamma

Sources: NASA; European Space Agency;

Space Telescope Science Institute

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

Seeing the universe through a broader spectrum

Peering into space with just our eyes shows us the optical portion of the electromagnetic spectrum – a fraction of the energy in the universe, often obscured by interstellar dust and gases. The James Webb telescope’s ability to see far into the infrared spectrum will afford scientists a clearer view into the deep cosmos than has been possible before.

James Webb Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope

Spitzer Space Telescope (retired)

ELECTROMAGNETIC SPECTRUM

Gamma

Ultraviolet

Infrared

Microwave

Radio

X-ray

Optical spectrum

Sources: NASA; European Space Agency; Space Telescope Science Institute

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

One report found 344 separate things that could go wrong — “single point failures” — and potentially derail the entire project. The telescope is not designed to be fixed if something goes seriously awry. The instruments are not modular and cannot be swapped out if they break. Unlike the Hubble, the Webb is too far away to be visited by astronauts.

But none of those single point failures happened. The Webb has surpassed astronomers’ scientific expectations, despite getting dinged recently by a micrometeoroid that put one of the mirror segments slightly out of whack.

“This telescope is one of humanity’s great engineering achievements,” Vice President Harris said Monday at the unveiling.

The Webb will study the formation of the earliest galaxies and the evolution of the universe as it has expanded. It will look at objects that are in our own solar system, including small, icy worlds beyond the orbit of Neptune.

NASA will soon put a massive archive of Webb data on a database open to researchers across the world, and scientists in a news conference Tuesday said they expect thousands of people to rummage through the observations to produce new scientific papers.

The clear message is that the Webb, which is designed to operate for at least 10 years but has enough fuel to last longer, could produce new science at a rapid pace for a long time.

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