Here is the first image from the James Webb Space Telescope

We have now seen further, deeper and clearer into space than ever before.

The first image from the James Webb Space Telescope, released at a White House briefing on July 11, shows thousands of distant galaxies. The galaxies captured here lie behind a cluster of galaxies about 4.6 billion light-years away. The mass from those galaxies distorts space-time in such a way that the objects behind the cluster are magnified, giving astronomers a way to see about 13 billion years into the early universe.

Even with that celestial assistance, other existing telescopes could never see until now. But the James Webb Space Telescope, also known as JWST, is extra large – at 6.5 meters wide, its mirror is nearly three times wider than that of the Hubble Space Telescope. It also sees in the infrared wavelengths of light where distant galaxies appear. These characteristics give it an advantage over previous observatories.

“The James Webb Space Telescope allows us to see deeper into space than ever before, and with stunning clarity,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at the July 11 briefing. “It will improve what we know about the origins of our universe, our solar system and possibly life itself.”

Although this first image represents the deepest view of the cosmos to date, “this is not a record that will stand for very long,” astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore said at a news conference on June 29. “Scientists will soon beat that record and go even deeper.”

And this image is just the first. On July 12, astronomers plan to release the first images of a stellar birthplace, a nebula surrounding a dying star and a cluster of closely interacting galaxies, plus the first light spectrum of an exoplanet, a clue to its composition . All of these images are a glimpse of what JWST will continue to discover during its planned decade-plus mission.

This first image has been a long time coming. The telescope that would become JWST was first dreamed up in the 1980s, and planning and construction suffered years of budget problems and delays (SN: 10/6/21).

The telescope was finally launched on December 25th. It then had to unfold and assemble in space, travel to a stable gravitational point about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, align its insect-like primary mirror made of 18 hexagonal segments, and calibrate its scientific instruments (SN: 24.1.22). There were hundreds of potential points of failure in that process, but the telescope was successfully deployed and operational.

The James Webb Space Telescope (illustrated) spent months unfolding and calibrating its instruments after it launched on December 25.

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The James Webb Space Telescope (pictured) spent months unfolding and calibrating its instruments after it launched on December 25. Adriana Manrique Gutierrez/CIL/GSFC/NASA

In the following months, the telescope team was released image teasers from the calibration, which already showed hundreds of distant, never-before-seen galaxies. But the images being released now are the first color pictures made from the data scientists will use to begin unraveling the mysteries of the universe.

For the telescope team, the relief to finally see the first images was palpable. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we did it!'” says image processor Alyssa Pagan, also of the Space Telescope Science Institute. “It seems impossible. It’s like the impossible has happened.”

In light of the expected anticipation surrounding the first set of images, the imaging team was sworn to secrecy. “I couldn’t even share it with my wife,” says Pontoppidan, the leader of the team that produced the first color science images.

“You’re looking at the deepest picture of the universe yet, and you’re the only one who’s seen it,” he says. “It’s deeply lonely.” Soon, however, the team of scientists, image processors and science writers were seeing something new every day for weeks as the telescope downloaded the first images. “It’s a crazy experience,” says Pontoppidan. “Once in a lifetime.”

For Pagani, the timing is perfect. “It’s a very unifying thing,” she says. “The world is so polarized right now. I think it could use something that is a bit more universal and relatable. It’s a good perspective, to remember that we are part of something much bigger and more beautiful.”

This story will be updated as more images are released.

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