The James Webb Space Telescope is one of NASA’s most exciting missions in the past decade, and the space community in general, and the first image of the vast observation platform of distant galaxies. behind our neighboring galaxies, was just revealed to the public on a live stream hosted by none other than President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“If you hold a grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm’s length, that’s the part of the universe you see, just a tiny speck of the universe,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in the livestream. “And what you see there are galaxies. You see galaxies shining around other galaxies whose light is bent.”
The image has been named “Webb’s First Deep Field”. This target is cluster SMACS 0723, according to material circulated before the image went live. NASA described the imaging technique as using the mass of the “near” (but still impossibly distant) cluster to “magnify and distort the light from objects behind them, allowing for a deep field of view in both the extremely distant and intrinsically distant weak galaxy populations.”
That probably explains the interesting distortions visible between the many galaxies seen here – but we’ll know more soon. View the description here for now† It is “the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant Universe to date.”
This method has been used before to image this same volume of space, but the Webb image is much, much better than the previous one. Here’s a section from the top right that’s zoomed in a bit so you can see more detail in the galaxies, and that cool lens effect:
Tomorrow is the official big media day for the Webb, or JWST as it is often abbreviated, which will feature a few more images and all sorts of technical and astronomical information related. But understandably, such a highly anticipated (and highly anticipated) event would receive the presidential treatment.
“It is an example of how a scientific pursuit of the international rules and standards that govern cooperation in space; this telescope is one of mankind’s greatest technical achievements,” says Harris.
The bus-sized Webb was launched on Christmas Day 2021, and after working its way to its position a million miles from Earth (“First of all, I’m surprised,” the president said), he’s been struggling to startup and testing of the many components and processes. The image we see today is the first “true” image, in the sense that it’s the first taken as a fully operational telescope – but we’ve seen plenty of others of inferior quality as the team shared progress to make the Webb up and run (and briefly panic over an unexpected micro-meteoroid hit – but aren’t they all?).
Each of Webb’s four scientific instruments has multiple modes of operation, using custom lenses, filters, prisms, and specialized machinery that had to be individually tested, calibrated and ultimately verified in their operational configuration in space before making accurate scientific observations of the universe,” read a NASA press release announcing the completion of the process. There are also 17 different modes in which it operates, which had to be tested.
Although the image released today is in color, the Webb actually detects infrared light, meaning these images have a level of interpretation and abstraction that we’ll get into tomorrow as the scientists explain it in detail (don’t worry). worry, it’s not “artist impression” or anything like that). The most famous space telescope of all, the Hubble, took pictures in the same wavelengths as humans see, simplifying the image-making process, but also limiting it in other ways.
As the team explained over the years of JWST’s development, the use of infrared (and much of it) allows the telescope to see completely different stellar objects and substances, as well as detect some that would be blocked by dust clouds. and other cosmic obstacles. It will be especially good at observing exoplanets and their atmospheres, thanks in part to an arrangement that allows it to block out a star’s relatively bright glare and focus on what’s around it.
Here are the other four first goals for the Webb, which we’ll see tomorrow:
- Carina Nebula, one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky. The Hubble actually this pictured a while back and it looks great.
- WASP-96b, a gas giant planet about 1150 light-years from Earth.
- Southern Ring or Eight-Burst Nebula, an expanding cloud of gas around a dying star.
- Stephan’s Quintet, the first compact galaxy group ever discovered, in 1877.
We’ll get those images tomorrow, along with all sorts of interesting commentary from the researchers behind the Webb. This is just the beginning of a new era of space observation for NASA and space watchers around the world – like the Hubble before it, expects JWST to be a constant presence in the scientific world for decades to come.