President Joe Biden attended today’s celebration of the first full-color image of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a $10 billion observatory that’s been decades in the making. But the star of the show was the image itself, billed as the universe’s deepest and sharpest infrared image yet.
The image shows a patch of sky where the gravitational effect of a huge foreground galaxy cluster known as SMACS 0723 focuses beams of light from much more distant background galaxies.
“This telescope embodies how America leads the world, not by the example of our power, but by the strength of our example,” Biden said at today’s White House ceremony. “These images will remind the world that America can do great things, and remind the American people – especially our children – that there is nothing beyond our capacity.”
NASA administrator Bill Nelson noted that light from some of the galaxies in Webb’s First Deep Field “has been traveling for more than 13 billion years.”
And that’s just the beginning: Astronomers say future images from the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, will likely surpass the current distance record and expand other space boundaries as well.
“The level of detail is amazing!” Astronomer Emily Levesque of the University of Washington told GeekWire in an email. “It’s fun staring at the big colorful arcs of galaxies that dominate the image, but I actually like looking for the tiniest and reddest little specks lurking in the deep background. Those are the galaxies so dim and far away that we couldn’t even imagine to see them with Hubble, which is what demonstrates the real power of JWST; there will be so much that we have never seen before!”
More images will be revealed Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. PT. Those images will show familiar celestial targets – the Carina Nebula, the Southern Ring Nebula and a galaxy known as Stephan’s Quintet. NASA will also release the spectral fingerprint of WASP-96 b, a Jupiter-like planet in a galaxy located nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth.
Future observations could reveal the makeup of atmospheres around alien planets that are more Earth-like than WASP-96 b — planets like those in the TRAPPIST-1 system, which some researchers say are hospitable to life. A team of astronomers from the University of Washington determined that JWST could detect signs of carbon dioxide or oxygen in the atmospheres of TRAPPIST-1 planets, just 39 light-years away.
The Webb Space Telescope is considered an heir to the Hubble Space Telescope, which is nearing retirement after more than 30 years of use. Webb’s 21-foot-wide segmented mirror has seven times the light-gathering capacity of Hubble’s mirror. Just as importantly, JWST is optimized to observe celestial bodies in infrared wavelengths, rather than the wide range of infrared-to-ultraviolet wavelengths covered by Hubble.
That focus on the infrared means that JWST is well suited for exploring the redshifted edges of the observable universe, as well as young planets wrapped in dust clouds. It also means that pictures from the telescope are typically processed to bring out colors that are not visible to the naked eye.
The 7-ton space telescope was launched last Christmas atop a European Ariane 5 rocket and underwent a months-long commissioning process at a gravity balance point a million miles from Earth.
Unlike Hubble’s shaky start in 1990, Webb’s deployment went off without a hitch — but the mission has faced more than the usual controversy over the years. JWST, which started with a $3.5 billion price tag and an expected 2013 launch date, went through repeated rounds of cost overruns and schedule delays.
Some scientists are angry that JWST was named after a former NASA administrator who headed the agency during a time of government discrimination against gay and lesbian employees, and they have urged NASA to rename the telescope.
“I’d like to be unconditionally excited about the mission,” Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, said in a tweet† “But right now, NASA is digging its heels in, combined with watching my fellow scientists and science communicators decide they can just turn off … the part of their brain that’s hindered is just too much.”
Another leading critic of the telescope’s name — Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astrophysicist at the University of New Hampshire who was formerly a research associate at the University of Washington — said she was nonetheless looking forward to the fruits of the mission.
“I’m so excited to see what the Just Wonderful Space Telescope will teach us,” Prescod-Weinstein wrote in a tweet†
Check back for updates to this story after the full reveal of JWST’s first images Tuesday. The footage will be featured on PBS on Wednesday in a NOVA documentary titled “Ultimate Space Telescope.”