galaxies in deep space

Thanks, Joe.

At the White House on Monday evening, President Joe Biden revealed a cosmic image captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, a last-minute surprise unveiling before NASA’s much-anticipated reveal of Webb’s first full-color photos on July 12. It’s a preview of what’s to come from a telescope that will peer into profoundly deep space at some of the first stars and galaxies ever born.

The space observatory, orbiting around 1 million miles from Earth, will also see through thick clouds of cosmic dust and make unprecedented discoveries about the composition of distant planets beyond our solar system (exoplanets).

“The James Webb Space Telescope allows us to see deeper into space than ever before, and in stunning clarity,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at the unveiling she attended with President Biden.

The first image is a view of galaxies in extremely deep space. The light from those galaxies has been traveling for billions of years, NASA administrator Bill Nelson explained. Specifically, you’re looking at the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared some 4.6 billion years ago. Behind it, however, are more ancient galaxies.

“This first image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. Known as Webb’s First Deep Field, this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail,” NASA explained in a statement. “Thousands of galaxies – including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared – have appeared in Webb’s view for the first time. This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.”

a cluster of galaxies in deep, deep space

NASA calls this image “Webb’s First Deep Field.” It’s an image of the galaxy cluster “SMACS 0723.” The mass of the galaxies distorts, and magnifies, more distant galaxies in the background.
Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI

More images will arrive on July 12. “These images are going to remind the world that America can do big things,” President Biden said.

The deep space observatory

The Webb telescope — a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency — is designed to make unprecedented discoveries. “With this telescope, it’s really hard not to break records,” Thomas Zurbuchen, an astrophysicist and NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, recently said at a press conference.

the James Webb Space Telescope's mirrors

The gold-coated mirrors on the James Webb Space Telescope.
Credit: NASA / Chris Gunn

Here’s how Webb will achieve unprecedented things:

  • Giant mirror: Webb’s mirror, which captures light, is over 21 feet across. That’s over two and a half times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror. Capturing more light allows Webb to see more distant, ancient objects. The telescope will peer at stars and galaxies that formed over 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

    “We’re going to see the very first stars and galaxies that ever formed,” Jean Creighton, an astronomer and the director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, told Mashable last year.

  • Infrared view: Unlike Hubble, which largely views light that’s visible to us, Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, meaning it views light in the infrared spectrum. This allows us to see far more of the universe. Infrared has longer wavelengths than visible light, so the light waves more efficiently slip though cosmic clouds; the lightwaves don’t as often collide with and get scattered by these dense clouds. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared eyesight can penetrate places Hubble can’t.

    “It lifts the veil,” said Creighton.

  • Peering into distant exoplanets: The Webb telescope carries specialized equipment, called spectrometers, that will revolutionize our understanding of these far-off worlds. The instruments can decipher what molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide, and methane) exist in the atmospheres’ of distant exoplanets — be it gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will look at exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Who knows what we’ll find.

    “We might learn things we never thought about,” Mercedes López-Morales, an exoplanet researcher and astrophysicist at Center for Astrophysics-Harvard & Smithsonian, told Mashable in 2021.

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