The James Webb Space Telescope has captured the deepest photograph of the universe

In a few days, scientists will release an unprecedented photo of the Universe, penetrating deeper than ever into the cosmos and revealing some of the oldest stars and galaxies.

The image is one of 10 to 20 photos that will come out July 12 from the James Webb Space Telescope, the preeminent observatory in the sky, NASA officials confirmed during a news conference Wednesday. For the few scientists who saw a preview, the new snaps have inspired profound existential experiences and left some on the brink of tears, they said.

“It’s an emotional moment when you see nature suddenly revealing some of its secrets,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s science missions. “It’s not an image. It’s a new worldview.”


NASA unexpectedly revealed a “first light” image from the Webb telescope

The telescope launched from Earth about six months ago, on Christmas morning, and is now orbiting the Sun at a distance of nearly 1 million miles. NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, a former astronaut, said this week the team expects the telescope to last: It has enough fuel on board to support research for the next 20 years.

Test images of the telescope alignment have already demonstrated the unmatched sharpness and clarity of the infrared telescope. But these upcoming images will be the first in full color and will also showcase Webb’s scientific prowess.

The images and scientific data will be available as part of a broadcast event from approx 10:30am ET on July 12th from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The public can View live coverage on NASA TV and the agency’s website.

Taking pictures with this complex machine, equipped with four scientific instruments, is nothing more than pointing a smartphone at the sky and clicking. It takes a few weeks to process vast amounts of data before a final picture emerges.

“When you download the data, it doesn’t look like a nice color image at all. They don’t look like anything at all,” said astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute. “You can only appreciate them as an expert if you know what to look for.”

NASA officials also said they will present the telescope’s first atmospheric study of a planet outside of this solar system in what is called an exoplanet spectrum. The light data provide astronomers with detailed information about what type of molecules exist in an atmosphere.

Webb, a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, will observe some of the oldest and faintest lights in the universe. The powerful 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. For example, discoveries of water and methane – the main components of life – could be clues to potential habitability or biological activity.

Astronomers predict that Webb will usher in a golden age in our understanding of the universe. This first crop of cosmic image targets was chosen to show the telescope at its full potential without undermining some of the scheduled observations planned later in the year.

But NASA is keeping a low profile about what else is to come. Here’s what we know so far.

Hubble's ultra-deep field

If the Webb photo is going to go deeper than what people have seen before, it has to outperform the Hubble Space Telescope’s ultra-deep-field survey.
Image credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope

What do you mean by the “deepest” photo yet?

If the Webb photo is going to go deeper than what people have seen before, it has to surpass the Hubble Space Telescope’s ultra-deep-field survey taken about 20 years ago. The famous, sprawling image features nearly 10,000 galaxies of varying ages, sizes, shapes, and colors.

In astronomy, looking into the distance means observing the past because light and other forms of radiation take longer to reach us. In the Hubble Deep Field, the oldest visible galaxies are from the first 800 million years after the Big Bang. This is an incredibly early period compared to the estimated age of the universe at 13.8 billion Years.

But Webb was built to see an even earlier period, using a much larger primary mirror than Hubble – 21 feet across versus just under 8 feet – and detecting invisible light at infrared wavelengths. In short, much dust and gas in space obscures extremely distant and inherently faint light sources, but infrared waves can penetrate clouds. A Webb scientist said the telescope was so sensitive it could detect the warmth of a bumblebee on the moon.

“The original goal of this mission was to see the first stars and galaxies,” said Eric Smith, Webb’s program scientist, “not the first light of the universe, but to see the universe turn on the lights for the first time.”

Exoplanet in transit

When exoplanets cross in front of their host star, the star’s light is filtered through this atmosphere.
Image credits: ESA, NASA, M. Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble) and STScI

What will this “exoplanet spectrum” tell us?

The Webb team will present the telescope’s first exoplanet spectrum, a study of light passing through a planet’s atmosphere and revealing what molecules are contained within.

Astronomers have found about 5,000 so-called exoplanets, worlds orbiting stars other than the Sun, but statistically there should be exponentially more. According to The Planetary Society, the universe could have perhaps over 100 billion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. If most stars have one or more planets around them, there could be on the order of “billion trillion” exoplanets out there.

Scientists can use Webb to study planetary atmospheres. When exoplanets cross in front of their host star, the star’s light is filtered through this atmosphere. Molecules in the atmosphere absorb specific wavelengths or colors of light. By splitting the star’s light into its basic components – a rainbow – astronomers can identify which segments of light are missing to discern the molecular makeup of an atmosphere.

“It’s an emotional moment when you see nature suddenly revealing some of its secrets.”

Knowing what’s in another planet’s atmosphere is important, scientists say. For example, the composition of Earth’s atmosphere changed as life arose on the planet, releasing carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Researchers believe that by studying the atmosphere, they can determine whether other planets are or could be supporting life.

Though the researchers didn’t reveal which exoplanet they were studying, it’s likely that it’s not a rocky world like Earth. Gas-giant exoplanets similar in composition to Jupiter are easier to analyze, so astronomers likely targeted one of them first.

The planet Jupiter

Some of the James Webb Space Telescope observations focus on objects in the Solar System, such as Jupiter and its moons.
Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO team via Getty Images

Are some of the photos in the solar system?

It’s not yet clear if Webb’s first photo drop will include images of neighboring planets or space objects.

The first images are designed to highlight the scientific topics that inspired the mission: information about the early Universe, the evolution of galaxies over time, the life and death of stars, and the properties of other worlds.

By July 12, the Webb team will have completed 120 hours of observations and collected five days of scientific data. Five days later, they will likely have doubled that power, said Jonathan Gardner, Webb’s deputy senior project scientist.

“If we don’t see anything in our solar system on July 12, we will certainly see the planets very soon.”

“There’s an ‘Early Release Science Program’ that’s focused on Jupiter and Jupiter’s moons and the Jovian system,” Gardner said, “so if we don’t see anything in our solar system on July 12, we’ll certainly see the planets very soon.” “

This program, developed by the Space Telescope Science Institute and Webb’s advisory board, will focus on providing scientists with plenty of initial data so they can learn about the telescope’s capabilities and write better research proposals. This period covers the first five months of observatory operation.

What are other possible motifs for the Webb telescope?

While it’s not clear what other “wow” images will be among this first photo drop, the Webb team have offered some clues as to their agenda based on how they’ve divided Observatory time for scientific work.

Most of the time – about a third of the program – is spent studying galaxies and the gas and dust between them. The remaining priorities:

  • 25% Exoplanets and their origin

  • 20% of stellar life cycles focusing on how they are born and how they die

  • 10% galaxies with supermassive black holes at their centers, like the Milky Way

  • 5% are devoted to other planets and comets in Earth’s solar system

  • 5% or more dedicated to cosmology and the expansion of the universe

It’s fair to say that many, if not all, of the images appearing in the publication are described as “firsts” in astronomy.

“With this telescope,” says Zurbuchen, “it’s really hard not to break records.”