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“An image is worth a thousand worlds,” Google said Tuesday (July 12, 2022) as it celebrated the deepest infrared image of space ever taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope with a special holiday logo. The U.S. space agency on Tuesday released the first full-color, high-resolution images from the largest and most powerful observatory ever launched into space, designed to peer further into the dawn of space with greater clarity than before.
The debut photos, which took weeks to render from the telescope’s raw data, were chosen by NASA to showcase the capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope and herald future science missions.
Are we alone in the universe? How’d we get here?
The first images from the James Webb Space Telescope help us #UnfoldTheUniverse & answer the questions above
The $9 billion infrared telescope was launched on December 25, 2021, and nearly 1 million miles from Earth, it reached its destination in solar orbit a month later. With Webb fine-tuned after months spent remotely adjusting mirrors and calibrating instruments, scientists will embark on a competitive agenda exploring the evolution of galaxies, the life cycle of stars, the atmospheres of distant exoplanets and the moons of our outer solar system.
It’s time. #UnfoldTheUniverse with us, and join the global watch party for the first full-color images from the world’s most powerful space telescope, @NASAWebb. https://t.co/iLDER3c8k6 https://t.co/iLDER3c8k6
— NASA (@NASA) July 12, 2022
The high-profile debut image, previewed by US President Biden on Monday but unveiled to greater fanfare on Tuesday, was a “deep-field” photograph of the distant galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, revealing the most detailed view yet of the early universe.
The SMACS 0723 image below shows a 4.6-billion-year-old cluster of galaxies whose combined mass acts as a “gravitational lens,” warping space to greatly magnify the light coming from the more distant galaxies behind it. One of the older galaxies appearing in the “background” of the photograph – composed of images of different wavelengths of light – dates back to about 13.1 billion years.
The thousands of galaxies that appear in the SMACS 0723 image underscore the vastness of the universe, appearing in a small patch of sky roughly the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone standing on Earth.
At least one faint galaxy measured among thousands in the image is nearly 95% as old as the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set in motion the expansion of the known universe about 13.8 billion years ago, NASA said.
Among the four other Webb subjects that got their close-ups on Tuesday were two huge clouds of gas and dust ejected into space by stellar explosions to create incubators for new stars — the Carina Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, each thousands of light-years from Earth.
New photos of the Carina Nebula reveal never-before-seen outlines of its massive clouds.
The image of the Southern Ring Nebula below shows that the dying stellar object at its center was a binary pair of stars closely orbiting each other.
The collection also included fresh images of another galaxy cluster known as Stephan’s Quintet, first discovered in 1877, which includes several galaxies that NASA described as “locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters”.
In addition to the images, NASA presented Webb’s first spectrographic analysis of a Jupiter-sized exoplanet more than 1,100 light-years away—revealing the molecular signatures of filtered light passing through its atmosphere, including the presence of water vapor. Scientists have raised the possibility that water could eventually appear on the surface of smaller, rockier Earth-like exoplanets in the future.
The James Webb Space Telescope is 100 times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope
Designed to observe its objects primarily in the infrared spectrum, the James Webb Space Telescope is about 100 times more sensitive than its 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which operates mainly in optical and ultraviolet wavelengths. The much larger light-gathering area of Webb’s primary mirror—an array of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-plated beryllium metal—allows objects to be observed at greater distances, further back in time, than any other telescope. Its infrared optics allow Webb to detect a wider range of celestial objects and see through clouds of dust and gas that obscure light in the visible spectrum.
All five of Webb’s initial targets were previously known to scientists, but NASA officials said Webb’s early images showed it was working as designed, better than expected, literally capturing its subjects in a whole new light.
The Webb Telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in cooperation with the European and Canadian space agencies.