NASA’s James Webb telescope reveals the new images of stars, galaxies and an exoplanet

At first glance, the first image of NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope doesn’t seem all that remarkable.

But in reality, what appear to be tiny dots in space are actually galaxies – billions of years old.

“If you hold a grain of sand on your fingertip at arm’s length, that’s part of the universe you see — a tiny dot of the universe,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said of the image on Monday.

Also, captured in this image are the first galaxies to form in the universe. Nelson said additional images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope could reveal which distant galaxies are potentially habitable.

The White House, along with NASA, released a series of images from the telescope since it was launched from Earth six months ago.

President Biden called Monday’s revelations “a historic day.”

NASA had planned to release the image today as part of a collection of first scientific results but decided that Biden would be the one to reveal the image to the world because it was so dramatic.

The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope is the most sophisticated observatory ever launched. It left Earth last December. In late January, it reached its celestial parking spot, about a million miles from the planet. Since then, engineers have been checking the instruments, aligning the mirrors, and letting the telescope cool down so that its instruments work properly.

“The WEB was created to detect the first generation of galaxies that formed after the Big Bang,” says Jane Rigby, the telescope’s operational project scientist. “That’s the main scientific goal.”

Before declaring the telescope open for commercial operations, they wanted to make what they called early launch observations. These are meant to show that the telescope works and are, as Rigby says, “visually and scientifically jaw-droppingly beautiful and powerful.”

NASA's James Webb telescope reveals the new images of stars, galaxies and an exoplanet

In addition to the first-ever image of galaxies, NASA will also release images of the Carina Nebula, a star-forming nursery known as the Southern Ring Nebula, and a group of galaxies known in 1787 as the Stephens Quintet. There will also be an analysis of light from a giant planet orbiting outside our solar system with the prosaic name WASP-96b. Those additional images are expected to be released Tuesday morning.

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Let’s go back to the beginning
The Web is designed to collect and analyze infrared light, which is at wavelengths longer than the human eye can see. This would allow us to capture light from early galaxies that appears in the infrared.

Those early galaxies are so far away — more than 13 billion light-years away — and as powerful as the Webb telescope, they may appear as faint blobs. But the smudges could help astronomers understand more about how the universe as we know it formed.

NASA's James Webb telescope reveals the new images of stars, galaxies and an exoplanet

One of the astronomers searching for those early galaxies is astronomer Caitlin Casey of the University of Texas at Austin.

One way to look for these faint galaxies, he says, is to point a telescope at the same part of the sky for a hundred hours or so, letting in the light from these distant objects. The approach can identify many previously unseen galaxies.

But where Hubble could see tens of thousands of galaxies in a deep field, with Webb, “we’re going to get a million galaxies,” Casey says.

Beyond discovering new galaxies, Casey wants to understand the larger structure of the universe, and what the universe would look like if you could step back and get a bird’s eye view.

“If you zoom all the way in, the whole universe looks like the inside of a sponge, where there are these little filaments and voids,” says Casey. “So what we really want to capture is that structure.”

Much more to see
But that’s just the beginning. The breadth of the scientific web is astounding. For example, Megan Mansfield, a NASA Sagan postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arizona, uses the web to study the atmospheres of planets orbiting stars outside our solar system.

In particular, she wants to know about their atmospheres — “what they’re made of, what their temperature is.” This will tell her a lot about the planet and whether it is capable of supporting life.

Anna Nierenberg of the University of California, Merced, leads a team that has cooked up an ingenious way to try to understand the fundamental nature of dark matter, which covers a quarter of the universe, using a new telescope. “You can’t do that with any other instrument,” he says. “It will be a big deal if everything works out.”

As with any scientific instrument with new capabilities, no one knows what secrets the Web telescope will reveal about the universe we live in.

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