The first images of the universe captured by NASA’s new flagship telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, are worth more than a thousand words.
The images, released July 12, show nebulas, galaxy clusters and exoplanets in unprecedented and stunning detail.
The telescope, commonly referred to as JWST, launched last December off the coast of French Guiana. It is the successor to the Hubble Telescope, but larger and even more complex. In the months since it launched, it has gone through a complex process to unfold and calibrate itself, settling into its spot in orbit a million miles away from Earth.
“These are some of the sharpest images of the universe ever taken by humanity,” said University of Chicago astrophysicist Michael Gladders, who is part of several international teams taking data with JWST in these first few months.
“Looking at these images reminds me why I’m in this business—why I devote my time and energy and life to this kind of research,” he said, “because there are moments like this where it’s just extraordinary.”
As the telescope ramps up its observations, scientists expect a flood of fascinating data. The JWST is specifically designed to pick up infrared light, which has longer wavelengths than visible light. Because light gets stretched longer and longer as it travels across the universe, much of the oldest light from the beginning of time is infrared.
That means scientists can ask questions like what the universe looked like in its infancy and how it developed. It will also be able to reveal new details about what kinds of other planets are orbiting faraway stars.
“The detail in these JWST images is simply spectacular,” said UChicago astrophysicist Wendy Freedman. “It's as if we are putting on eyeglasses and suddenly seeing fine detail for the first time.”