“It’s a new window into the history of our universe,” said President Biden. “Today we get a glimpse of the first light shining through that window.”
Launched on Christmas Day 2021, the JWST is the most advanced telescope ever sent to space. The infrared telescope, a collaboration between the US, Europe and Canada, has a diameter of 6 meters and is equipped with 18 gold-plated hexagonal mirrors. It can peer further and more accurately through the cosmos than any other instrument, far surpassing even Hubble.
In recent months, engineers work tirelessly to get the machine going, which is protected from the sun’s rays by a huge sunshade the size of a tennis court. Located 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, beyond the moon’s orbit, the telescope is now ready for use. “You keep pinching yourself,” said Mark McCaughrean, senior advisor for Science and Exploration at the European Space Agency. “It’s just so surprisingly good.”
The image unveiled today by President Biden is the first of four to be released this week, the others being images of two spectacular nebulae and a compact group of galaxies. A fifth sighting, a preliminary study of the atmosphere of a planet in another solar system, will also be revealed.
“It’s like putting on glasses for the first time,” said Wendy Freedman, an astronomer at the University of Chicago. Paul Byrne, an astronomer at Washington University in St. Louis, describes the image as “poetic,” revealing a slew of galaxies inhabited by stars and planets in the cosmos.
These test images are a small glimpse of what the telescope, which is operated by NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, is capable of. The JWSTs first year of planned scientific observations includes detailed studies of exoplanets, explorations of distant galaxies and expeditions deep into the sky and thus far back in time, towards the Big Bang itself.
“This observatory sees things we’ve never seen before,” said Michael Menzel, chief mission systems engineer for the JWST at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, “and it’s only in first gear.”