Nasa draws back curtain on Webb space telescope’s first full-colour images

An image from the James Webb Space Telescope shows never-before-seen details of Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies. PHOTO: AFP

GREENBELT, MARYLAND (REUTERS) - Nasa on Tuesday (July 12) drew back the curtain on billions of years of cosmic evolution with the inaugural batch of photos from the largest, most powerful observatory ever launched to space, saying the luminous imagery showed the telescope exceeds expectations.

The first full-colour, high-resolution pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope, designed to peer farther than before with greater clarity to the dawn of the universe, were hailed by Nasa as milestone marking a new era of astronomical exploration.

Nearly two decades in the making and built under contract for Nasa by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp, the US$9 billion (S$12.65 billion) infrared telescope was launched on Dec 25, 2021. It reached its destination in solar orbit nearly 1 million miles from Earth a month later.

Once there, the telescope underwent a months-long process to unfurl all of its components, including a sun shield the size of a tennis court, and to align its mirrors and calibrate its instruments.

With Webb now finely tuned and fully focused, astronomers will embark on a competitively selected list of science projects exploring the evolution of galaxies, the life cycles of stars, the atmospheres of distant exoplanets and the moons of our outer solar system.

The introductory assortment of pictures had been a closely guarded secret until Friday, when the space agency posted a list of five celestial subjects chosen for its big reveal on Tuesday at Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland.

“All of us are just blown away,” Amber Straughn, Webb deputy project scientist at 
Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said among a panel of experts who briefed reporters following the big reveal.

Whoops and hollers from a spritely James Webb "cheer team" welcomed some 300 scientists, telescope engineers, politicians and senior officials from Nasa and its international partners into a packed and lively auditorium ahead of opening remarks.

"I didn't know I was coming to a pep rally today," Nasa Administrator James Nelson said from the stage, enthusing that Webb's "every image is a discovery."

US President Joe Biden got a jump on the unveiling with his own White House briefing on Monday to release the very first photo - an image of a galaxy cluster dubbed SMACS 0723 revealing the most detailed glimpse of the early universe recorded to date.

A composite picture made from different wavelengths showing galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, taken by the James Webb space telescope. PHOTO: EPA-EFE/SPACE TELESCOPE SCIENCE INSTITUTE OFFICE OF PUBLIC OUTREACH

Among the four other Webb "targets" getting their closeups on Tuesday are two enormous clouds of gas and dust blasted into space by stellar explosions to form incubators for new stars - the Carina Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, each thousands of light years away from Earth.

The debut collection includes another galaxy cluster known as Stephan's Quintet, which was first discovered in 1877 and encompasses several galaxies described by Nasa as "locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters."

A James Webb Space Telescope photo provided by Nasa shows the Carina Nebula, showing the earliest stages of star formation. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Nasa will also present Webb's first spectrographic analysis of an exoplanet - one roughly half the mass of Jupiter that lies more than 1,100 light years away - revealing the molecular signatures of filtered light passing through its atmosphere.

Built to view its subjects chiefly in the infrared spectrum, Webb is about 100 times more sensitive than its 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which operates mainly at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

The Southern Ring Nebula expelling a colorful gas cloud that will eventually expand and fade away into the space between stars. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The much larger light-collecting surface of Webb's primary mirror - an array of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal - enables it to observe objects at greater distances, thus further back in time, than Hubble or any other telescope.

All five of Webb's introductory targets were previously known to scientists, but Nasa officials promise Webb's imagery captures its subjects in an entirely new light, literally.

The SMACS 0723 image Mr Biden released on Monday showed a 4.6 billion-year-old galaxy cluster whose combined mass acts as a "gravitational lens," distorting space to greatly magnify the light coming from more distant galaxies behind it.

Remote video URL

At least one of the faint, older specks of light appearing in the "background" of the photo - a composite of images of different wavelengths of light - dates back more than 13 billion years, Nelson said.

That makes it just 800 million years younger than the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set the expansion of the known universe in motion some 13.8 billion years ago.

The bejewelled-like composite photo, according to Nasa, offers the "most detailed view of the early universe" as well as the "deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant cosmos" yet taken.

The thousands of galaxies appearing in the image were captured in a tiny patch of the sky roughly the size of a grain of sand held at arm's length by someone standing on Earth, Mr Nelson said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.