The image shows SMACS 0723, where a massive group of galaxy clusters acts as a magnifying glass for objects beyond. This so-called gravitational lensing created Webb’s first deep-field view of incredibly old and distant, faint galaxies.
The presentation took place at the White House during a preview event with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
“It’s the deepest picture of our universe ever taken,” Nelson said.
Some of these distant galaxies and star clusters have never been seen before. The galaxy cluster is shown as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago.
“This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky about the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground,” said a NASA press release.
The image, captured by Webb’s near-infrared camera, is composed of images taken at different wavelengths of light over the course of 12.5 hours. Mapping the deepest fields of the Hubble Space Telescope took weeks.
The remaining high-resolution color images will make their debut on Tuesday, July 12.
The first image release underscores Webb’s scientific prowess, as well as the ability of his massive golden mirror and scientific instruments to produce spectacular images.
Opening remarks from NASA leadership and the Webb team will begin Tuesday at 9:45 a.m. ET, followed by an image transmission beginning at 10:30 a.m. ET. The images will be unveiled one at a time, and a press conference at 12:30 p.m. ET will provide details on them.
The first pictures
NASA on Friday shared Webb’s first cosmic targets and provided a preview of what else Tuesday’s image release will include: the Carina Nebula, WASP-96b, the Southern Ring Nebula, and Stephen’s Quintet.
Located 7,600 light-years away, the Carina Nebula is a stellar nursery where stars are born. One of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky, it is home to many stars much more massive than our Sun.
Webb’s study of giant gas planet WASP-96b will be the first full-color spectrum of an exoplanet. The spectrum will include different wavelengths of light that could reveal new information about the planet, such as whether it has an atmosphere. WASP-96b was discovered in 2014 and is located 1,150 light-years from Earth. It has half the mass of Jupiter and completes one orbit around its star every 3.4 days.
Also known as the Eight Burst, the Southern Ring Nebula is 2,000 light-years from Earth. This large planetary nebula contains an expanding cloud of gas around a dying star.
The space telescope view of Stephan’s quintet will show how galaxies interact with each other. First discovered in 1787, this compact group of galaxies lies 290 million light-years away in the constellation Pegasus. Four of the five galaxies in the group “are locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters,” according to a NASA statement.
The targets were selected by an international committee including members from NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
These will be the first of many images to come from Webb, the most powerful telescope ever launched into space. According to NASA Assistant Administrator Pam Melroy, the mission, originally intended to last 10 years, has enough excess fuel capacity to operate for 20 years.
“Webb can look back in time just after the Big Bang by looking for galaxies so distant that it took light many billions of years to reach us from those galaxies,” said Jonathan Gardner, deputy principal project scientist by Webb at NASA, during a recent press conference. “Webb is larger than Hubble, so it can see fainter galaxies that are farther away.”
The telescope’s original goal was to see the first stars and galaxies of the universe, essentially watching “the universe turn on the light for the first time,” said Eric Smith, Webb program scientist and chief scientist at NASA’s Astrophysics Division.
Smith has worked on Webb since the project began in the mid-1990s.