The first pictures taken by NASA's James Webb space telescope show galaxies that are very old.
The pictures show how parts of the universe looked 13 billion years ago. This changes how we think about the cosmos.
Nasa has released the first picture from the most powerful telescope ever sent into space. This picture shows how faraway galaxies looked 13 billion years ago. It will change how we think about the beginning of the universe.
The James Webb space telescope (JWST) took a clear picture of SMACS 0723, a small piece of the universe. It shows the light from many different twinkling galaxies, some of which are among the oldest in the universe. Joe Biden showed the picture to the public at a White House event. He said it was a "historic" moment and gave us "a new window into the history of our universe."
"I can't even wrap my mind around it," said the US president. "That is amazing. It's a big deal for science and technology in America and the rest of the world.
Bill Nelson, who runs NASA, said that the picture showed how the light from galaxies bends around other galaxies after traveling for billions of years. "We are looking back more than 13 billion years," he said, adding that more images to be released by the space agency would go back even further, to about 13.5 billion years, which is close to when scientists think the universe began. "We're almost back where we started," he said.
The image is a sneak peek at a set of high-resolution color photos from JWST that Nasa will show off on Tuesday. Nelson says that one of them will be "the deepest picture of our universe ever taken."
Experts say that the telescope, which took 30 years to build and was put into use last year, could change the way we think about the universe by giving us detailed infrared pictures of it.
The $10 billion telescope can look into the atmospheres of exoplanets and see some of the oldest galaxies in the universe. It does this by using a system of lenses, filters, and prisms to pick up signals in the invisible infrared spectrum. Marcia Rieke, an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona, says that the system has "worked perfectly" so far.
"Webb can look back in time to just after the big bang by looking for galaxies so far away that the light has taken many billions of years to reach us," said Jonathan Gardner, deputy senior project scientist at Nasa, at a recent news conference. "Webb is bigger than Hubble, so it can see galaxies that are farther away and less bright."
The telescope is a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency. It has been in the works since the mid-1990s, and it was finally launched into space in December. It is said to be the most powerful telescope ever sent into space. It is about 1 million miles from Earth and is scanning old galaxies as its job.
The original goal of the project was to see how the first stars and galaxies formed after the big bang. As Webb program scientist Eric Smith put it, the goal was to see "the universe turn the lights on for the first time." Kamala Harris, the vice president of the United States, said that the telescope should be seen as "one of humanity's great engineering achievements."
Gillian Wright, who is the director of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh and the principal investigator for the mid-infrared (Miri) instrument on JWST, said that the observatory as a whole is doing amazingly well.
"It's hard to believe how great things have turned out. It's really incredible."
Nasa said that JWST will first look at five places in space. One of these is the Carina nebula, which is like a nursery for stars. The nebula is about 7,600 light years away, and it is full of huge stars that are many times bigger than the sun.
Other areas of interest include WASP-96 b, a giant planet outside of our solar system that is mostly made of gas, the southern ring nebula, an expanding cloud of gas that surrounds a dying star 2,000 light years from Earth, and Stephan's quintet, which was the first compact galaxy group to be found in 1877. Nasa will show off pictures of these targets on Tuesday.
Richard Ellis, an astrophysics professor at University College London who was on the committee that came up with the idea for the telescope, said, "It's thrilling to see the amazing image from the James Webb space telescope that came out today."
"Since we are made of things that were made in stars over the past 13 billion years, JWST is the only way to find out where we came from in this amazing universe. This exciting adventure is open to everyone.