It has been 26 years since development started on the eventual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. In that time, after numerous delays, cost overruns, one major redesign, and 10 billion USD, the James Webb Space Telescope has finally taken its first images.
As the scientific successor to Hubble, Webb will produce images that are different than the visible and ultraviolet images we are used to seeing. That's because the instruments on the JWST were designed to look at the universe primarily in infrared, to go beyond Hubble, allowing scientists to peer into the farthest visible reaches of space.
The following five images are the first in what's expected to be a 20-year mission duration. It is hoped that the JWST will be able to make observations and improve our understanding of the formation of the first stars and galaxies, as well as provide comprehensive atmospheric profiles of potentially habitable exoplanets.
Webb's First Deep Field
Yesterday NASA released this image of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. This deep field is a 12.5-hour composite made from images of various wavelengths showing the cluster as it appeared nearly 4.6 billion years ago. The galaxy cluster is so massive that it distorts the light from the smaller galaxies behind it, magnifying them as it acts as a gravitational lens.
Exoplanet WASP-96 b (spectrum)
This section isn't so much an image as it's actually a transmission spectrum made from a single observation of exoplanet WASP-96b. The spectrum was created by comparing starlight that filters through the atmosphere of the planet while it transits in front of the star, to the unfiltered starlight when the planet is beside the star. From these observations, scientists were able to determine the presence of water along with clouds and haze in the atmosphere of this planet that is 1120 light-years away.
Southern Ring Nebula
This is a side-by-side comparison showing observations of the Southern Ring Nebula in near-infrared light on the left, and mid-infrared light on the right. The 2000 light-year distant nebula was created by a dying star shedding its outer layers over thousands of years. These observations are significant for James Webb scientists, because planetary nebulae like this one can be more closely examined with JWST to determine which types of molecules are present in the clouds of dust and gas expelled by dying stars.
This image of Stephan's Quintet is a composite image using data from the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). This massive 150-megapixel mosaic was constructed from nearly 1000 separate images and shows the potential of JWST to create striking high-resolution visual data. Although these galaxies are tens of millions of light-years away, JWST has the resolving power to help scientists understand the shock waves between them as they interact and collide with each other. This will help in the understanding of much older and further away galaxies, improving our understanding of the beginnings of the universe.
This dramatic image shows the "Cosmic Cliffs" of a young star-forming region of the Carina Nebula. The near-infrared cameras on the JWST reveal previously obscured areas of stellar birth. This area is a gaseous cavity that has been carved out by the radiation and stellar winds emitted from extremely massive, hot, young stars. The intense radiation from the stars is slowly eroding it away. This nebula is roughly 7600 light-years away and the stellar nursery shown is an amazing cosmic event to capture, as individual star formation only lasts for 50-100,000 years.
Higher resolution photos, full descriptions, and everything you need to know about the James Webb Space Telescope and its missions can be found at www.webbtelescope.org