NASA unveils deep space photo from James Webb Space Telescope test

NASA has hyped the James Webb Space Telescope with another stunning test photo just before the big premiere to present the first full-color images of the observatory.

The US space agency on Thursday unveiled a new image from one of the giant infrared telescope’s instruments, the Fine Guidance Sensor. NASA nonchalantly shared the image on social media to demonstrate the power and clarity of Webb: an almost unfathomably deep view of the universe in red monochrome.

The surprise teaser comes just six days before the agency and its partners, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, plan to release the first set of true full-color images on July 12. Despite NASA Administrator Bill Nelson’s announcement that the cache will contain the deepest image of the universe ever recorded. This image — a purely technical test of Webb’s Fine Guidance Sensor — already breaks the current record for the farthest infrared view of the cosmos, scientists said.


The Webb Telescope just took the deepest picture of the Universe ever taken

For some people, the new snap (at the top of this story) might not look all that impressive — at best, maybe sesame seeds on a hamburger bun, or mosquitoes squished on a car window. But what they see is the abyss: behind just a handful of bright stars with huge spikes of light are galaxies teeming with solar systems.

That’s right: Any of these little specks could contain hundreds of billions of stars and planets. Within this frame are thousands of faint galaxies, many in the distant early Universe, according to the telescope team. In astronomy, looking into the distance means observing the past because light and other forms of radiation take longer to reach us.

Do you feel small already?

As Jane Rigby, a project scientist at NASA, once said during the observatory’s early calibration tests, “There’s no way Webb … can look at any point in the sky without going incredibly low.”

That’s true in this case. The Canada-built fine guidance sensor’s primary role is to point and lock on cosmic targets. Taking photos is just a bonus feature. When the photo was taken, engineers were testing the telescope’s ability to “roll sideways, lock on to a star, and roll like a flying airplane,” NASA explained in a blog. This could trigger a picture for some current Top Gun: Maverick moviegoers.

The image is the result of 72 exposures over 32 hours, layered on top of each other. The jagged edges of the photo are due to the overlapping frames, according to the post.

“There’s no way Webb … can look up at any point in the sky and not go incredibly low.”

Launched into space six months ago on Christmas morning, Webb will observe some of the oldest and faintest lights in the universe. Astronomers predict Webb’s science will herald a golden age in our understanding of the universe.

The powerful $10 billion infrared telescope will study a period less than 300 million years after the Big Bang, when many of the first stars and galaxies were born. Scientists will also use it to peer into the atmospheres of other worlds. Discoveries of water and methane, for example – some of the main components of life – could be indicative of potentially life-friendly environments.

Testing the James Webb Space Telescope

The powerful $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope will study a period less than 300 million years after the Big Bang, when many of the first stars and galaxies were born.
Photo credit: NASA

NASA officials stressed Thursday that the test capture is still “rough around the edges” and will not match the quality of the images that will be released soon on July 12. This one is not in color and would not hold up to the standard needed for scientific analysis, they said.

Engineers toned the data with a red filter, just like previous test images, to show contrast. The sharp six-pointed spikes that protrude from the stars are the result of Webb’s hexagonal mirror segments. This affects the way the light propagates and causes diffraction.

The stars also appear to have punched holes in their centers, a feature the Webb team says will not be present in upcoming photos. Engineers said the holes are there because the exposures lacked “dithering.”

“Dithering is when the telescope repositions itself slightly between each exposure,” according to NASA. “The centers of bright stars appear black because they saturate Webb’s detectors, and the telescope’s pointing did not change across exposures to capture the center of different pixels within the camera’s detectors.”

The upcoming images and science data will be released from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland during a broadcast event beginning July 12 at 10:30 am ET. The public can follow the live coverage on NASA television.