A picture may paint a thousand words, but the much-anticipated first image from the James Webb Space Telescope presented by US President Joe Biden early Tuesday morning tells a 13 billion-year story.
The picture is of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, a junction in the large-scale structure of the universe. Here, hundreds and perhaps even thousands of galaxies stream together through the influence of gravity.
An image captured by the James Webb Space Telescope shows galaxy cluster SMACS 0723.Credit:NASA
Thanks to its large mirror and its 1.5 million-kilometre distance from Earth, the space telescope (known as the JWST) is incredibly sensitive to faint light. This is showcased in this first image by the wisps of starlight at the centre. During the cluster’s formation, galaxies merged in spectacular collisions, while other galaxies disintegrated as they fell into the cluster.
These events will have flung stars into a diffuse, expansive haze. Usually invisible except with the longest exposures, we see it extending into the edges of this image with spectacular clarity, providing us with tantalising clues as to the history of the cluster.
But the new talent that has stolen the spotlight is behind the galaxy cluster. That is where the story in this image is really told. Because the light takes longer to arrive from more distant galaxies, we’re literally peering into our cosmic history, watching the story unfold.
The earliest galaxy ever seen by humans is very likely lurking within the pixels of this newly released JWST image, evident here as the smallest of red specks. Never before have we managed to capture this first twinkle, when a young universe stepped out of its dark ages with the ignition of the first stars.
In these baby galaxies, photons of light were released that would go on to have an incredible 13 billion-year journey. Travelling through space and time, their path would be jostled and bent by the huge galaxy cluster along the way, passing through the vastness of ever-expanding space, until eventually hitting a gold-plated mirror and being reflected into a marvel of modern engineering. Thanks to this journey, the answers to our cosmic origins story are within grasp.
The first image we’ve seen from this new telescope is exquisite, exceeding our expectations of quality, depth, and resolution. Over the coming days we will see more of what it has to offer, moving into ever-smaller scales from individual galaxies, to the birthplaces of individual stars, and even down to the chemical signature from planets outside our own solar system.
From the origin of our periodic table, to the search for planets like ours, our place in the universe is being placed into focus. The success of the images we’re seeing this week is a reminder that we can set lofty goals, and that with ambition, collaboration, expertise, and funding, we can produce an outcome that is truly inspirational.
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