The dawn of a new era of exploration: The first images from the James Webb Space Telescope are here


posted Tuesday, July 12, 2022 at 10:30 AM EDT


The day has finally arrived. It's been a long time coming, but the first full-color scientific images from the James Webb Space Telescope are here. Last night, we saw one of the images in a surprise reveal with President Biden and NASA, but now we have all five of Webb's first images, and they're truly stunning.

Before diving into the images, which is no doubt a momentous occasion, let's briefly recap how we got here. The path to these first images has been tumultuous and full of roadblocks. Development began in 1996, with an initial launch scheduled for 2007. At that time, the project's budget was $500M. Development was fraught with delays and high costs. By 2005, the space telescope had undergone a major redesign and a failed deployment test. The U.S. Congress threatened to cancel the project entirely.

By 2016, construction on the redesigned telescope was complete and underwent rigorous testing before launch aboard a European Space Agency (ESA) Ariane 5 rocket in French Guiana last December. Webb entered orbit in January of this year. The total project cost is now estimated to be around $10B.

However, all these challenges only make today's news all that much sweeter. Webb has passed all its tests in space at L2 with flying colors, and its scientific instruments are operating at full capacity. The high-stakes project not just came to fruition, but it's surpassing even the loftiest expectations of astronomers and engineers. The images revealed today have been more than two decades in the making and signal the start of a new era of exploration and understanding.

Without further ado, let's look closely at what NASA unveiled today.

SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster

If you missed the image reveal last night, here it is again. You can see the full-resolution version here. This image is of SMACS 0723, a galaxy cluster. The photo shows thousands of galaxies as they appeared 4.6 billion years ago and is the deepest and sharpest infrared image ever captured. It's a composite image that took about 12.5 hours to capture and comprises images shot at different wavelengths. The image was captured with one of Webb's four onboard instruments, the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). Some of the galaxies are distorted by other galaxies acting as gravitational lenses, which means that foreground galaxies magnify and shift light emitted by the further galaxies.

SMACS 0723. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI.

WASP-96 b (spectrum) 

The second image is a bit closer to home. It's an indirect image of an exoplanet, WASP-96 b. The giant planet is about 1,150 light-years from Earth and its about half the mass of Jupiter. The exoplanet was discovered in 2014. It orbits its star once every 3.4 days. The image is a spectrum that covers wavelengths of light that we've never seen before, unlocking key details about WASP-96 b's atmosphere. The "bumps and wiggles" are full of information, including the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere of WASP-96b. The information also show the presence of clouds and haze. It's not as exciting as a direct image, necessarily, but it's incredible information about a planet that we didn't even know existed a decade ago. Webb will investigate many exoplanets during its mission. 

NASA writes, "NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured the distinct signature of water, along with evidence for clouds and haze, in the atmosphere surrounding a hot, puffy gas giant planet orbiting a distant Sun-like star. The observation, which reveals the presence of specific gas molecules based on tiny decreases in the brightness of precise colors of light, is the most detailed of its kind to date, demonstrating Webb’s unprecedented ability to analyze atmospheres hundreds of light-years away."

WASP-96b (spectrum). Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Click here for the full-resolution version.

Southern Ring Nebula

The next photo (or two photos, really) is a near-infrared image of a planetary nebula. It's an incredibly detailed image and shows a dying star. It's one of the most spectacular images we've ever seen. 

For this, Webb used MIRI, its Mid-Infrared Instrument and NIRCam. NASA writes, "NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has cast the Southern Ring Nebula in an entirely new light. By observing the nebula in mid-infrared wavelengths, Webb has unveiled the second, dusty star at the center of the nebula in far more detail. The star closely orbits its companion as it periodically ejects layers of gas and dust. Together, the swirling duo have created a fantastic landscape of asymmetrical shells. Webb’s near-infrared light image hones in on “spotlights” from the stars, where light travels through holes in the nebula’s dusty ejections." 

Southern Ring Nebula (NIRCam and MIRI images side by side). Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI. Click here to view the full-resolution image.

Stephan's Quintet 

This is a compact galaxy group comprising five galaxies. It is located about 290 million light-years from Earth. The group was first discovered in 1787, which is a long time ago in astronomy terms. However, we've never had such a clear view of the group. Four of the five galaxies are "locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters." 

Webb shows never-before-seen details in the galaxy group. The image shows clusters of millions of young stars and fresh star birth. Stephan's Quintet is a "laboratory" of sorts, allowing scientists to see how interacting galaxies and their intersecting gas provide the fuel of star formation.

NASA writes, "Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies, is best known for being prominently featured in the holiday classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Today, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals Stephan’s Quintet in a new light. This enormous mosaic is Webb’s largest image to date, covering about one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter. It contains over 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. The information from Webb provides new insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe."


Stephan's Quintet. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Click here to view the full-resolution version.

Cosmic Cliffs and the lanscape of star birth 

This image shows a stellar nursery and is incredible exhibition of Webb's imaging capabilities. Webb can peer through space dust and provide clearer, better views of space that have previously been impossible. NASA writes, "The seemingly three-dimensional 'Cosmic Cliffs' showcases Webb’s capabilities to peer through obscuring dust and shed new light on how stars form. Webb reveals emerging stellar nurseries and individual stars that are completely hidden in visible-light pictures. This landscape of 'mountains' and 'valleys' is actually the edge of a nearby stellar nursery called NGC 3324 at the northwest corner of the Carina Nebula." 

Some of the 'mountains' in this image are huge, some seven light-years tall. The speckles of light are young stars photographed using infrared light. The 'steam' is hot, ionized gas and hot dust streaming away from the nebuelae due to constant radiation. Webb's "extreme sensitivity, spatial resolution and imaging capability" provide new views of these incredible events in space. 

"This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth." Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI. Click here to view the full-resolution image.

That's it for now. There is much more to discuss with these new images. We will write detailed articles about each new image throughout the week and we cannot wait to see more from the James Webb Space Telescope. 

These are just the first images from Webb, representing a brief period of observations. There will be much more to come. Scientists are lobbying for time with Webb now, and its first year looks like it will be bustling. NASA expects the mission to last 20 years, doubling the originally planned mission duration. In the coming months and years, we will see objects too old and distant for Hubble to have seen them. We will see some of the first stars and the formation of some of the oldest galaxies in the universe. We'll even see atmospheric photos of exoplanets, some of which may be habitable. Webb hopes to answer some of humanity's biggest questions about how the universe began and what's out there deep in the cosmos.