James Webb telescope takes ‘deepest ever’ view of the cosmos

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SMACS 0723: Red arcs in the image trace light from galaxies in the very early Universe

The first full-colour image from the new James Webb Space Telescope has been released – and it’s a record-breaker.

The picture represents the “deepest ever” view of the Universe, containing the light from galaxies that has taken many billions of years to reach us.

US President Joe Biden was shown the image during a White House briefing from the American space agency.

Further debut pictures from James Webb are due to be released in a global presentation on Tuesday.

The $10bn James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched on 25 December last year, is billed as the successor to the famous Hubble Space Telescope.

It will make all sorts of observations of the sky, but has two overarching goals. One is to probe far-off planets to see if they might be habitable; the other is to take pictures of the very first stars to shine in the Universe more than 13.5 billion years ago.

JWST history

The image unveiled before President Biden showcases Webb’s capabilities to pursue the second of these objectives.

What you see is a cluster of galaxies in the Southern Hemisphere constellation of Volans known by the ungainly name of SMACS 0723.

The cluster itself isn’t actually that far away – only about 4.6 billion light-years in the distance. But the great mass of this cluster has bent and magnified the light of objects that are much, much further away.

It’s a gravitational effect; the astronomical equivalent of a zoom lens for a telescope.

Webb, with its 6.5m-wide golden mirror and super-sensitive infrared instruments, has managed to detect in this picture the distorted shape of galaxies that existed a mere 600 million years after the Big Bang (the Universe is 13.8 billion years old).

And it’s even better than that. Scientists can tell from the quality of the data produced by Webb that the telescope is sensing space way beyond the most far-flung object in this image.

As a consequence, it’s possible this is even the deepest cosmic viewing field ever obtained.

Hubble used to stare at the sky for weeks on end to produce this kind of result. Webb identified its super-deep objects after only a few hours of observations.

Nasa and its international partners, the European and Canadian space agencies, will release further colour imagery from Webb on Tuesday.

One of the topics to be discussed will touch on that other overarching goal: the study of planets outside our Solar System.

Webb has analysed the atmosphere of WASP-96 b, a giant planet located more than 1,000 light-years from Earth. It will tell us about the chemistry of that atmosphere.

One day, it’s hoped Webb might spy a planet that has gases in its air that are similar to those that shroud the Earth.

Nasa scientists promise Webb will not disappoint.

“I have seen the first images and they are spectacular,” deputy project scientist Dr Amber Straughn said of Tuesday’s big release.

“They’re amazing in themselves just as images. But the hints of the detailed science we’re going to be able to do with them is what makes me so excited,” she told BBC News.

Dr Eric Smith, the programme scientist for the Webb project, said he thought the public had already grasped the significance of the new telescope.

“The design of Webb, the way Webb looks, I think, is in large part the reason the public is really fascinated by this mission. It looks like a spaceship from the future.”

Nasa is holding a webcast on Tuesday to showcase further imagery from the new telescope. There are many places where you can view this presentation, including on the European Space Agency’s web TV channel. Programming starts at 14:45 BST, 15:45 CEST; 09:45 EDT. Other viewing possibilities include the Canadian Space Agency’s YouTube channel; and on Nasa Live. BBC Two television will air a special programme on Webb – Super Telescope: Mission to the Edge of the Universe – on Thursday at 20:00 BST.

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