Image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope

First James Webb Space Telescope image shows ‘deepest’ view of the universe

Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Nasa has published the first high-resolution, full-colour image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, showing what is said to be the "deepest" and most detailed picture of the cosmos to date.

US President Joe Biden has unveiled the first picture taken by Nasa's James Webb telescope (JWST), the most detailed glimpse of the universe ever seen. 

Known as 'Webb’s First Deep Field', the picture showcases a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. It is the first of several pictures scheduled to be released over the next few days. 

When unveiling the picture, Biden called the moment “historic” and said it provided “a new window into the history of our universe”.

The image was taken by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and is a composite made from images at different wavelengths, some of them invisible to the human eye. The image is the farthest humanity has ever seen, in terms of both time and distance, with part of Webb's First Deep Field showing light from soon after the Big Bang. 

 Image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope

Image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope / NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

The photo is a composite of images of different wavelengths of light covering a patch of sky "approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length", Nasa said. The combined mass of the galaxy cluster shown in the image acts as a gravitational lens, which magnifies the distant galaxies behind it.

At least one of the faint, older specks of light appearing in the "background" of the image dates back more than 13 billion years, according to the space organisation. That makes it just 800 million years younger than the Big Bang. 

“Webb’s First Deep Field is not only the first full-colour image from the James Webb Space Telescope, it’s the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant Universe, so far," said Nasa administrator Bill Nelson, claiming that the organisation is planning to look back "almost to the beginning" of the universe.  

NASA's James Webb Telescope

NASA's James Webb Telescope / NASA

Image credit: Nasa

The $9bn (£8.4bn) James Webb Telescope is the largest and most powerful space science telescope ever launched, designed to give scientists a more detailed look at the start of the universe, the birth of stars, and possibly the origins of life.

After 14 years of delays, the telescope was launched on an Ariane 5 rocket on Christmas Day 2021 from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana. Following the launch, JWST underwent an agonising months-long process of slowly unfurling its tennis court-sized sunshield as Nasa engineers anxiously watched on to see whether it had been damaged during the launch process.

JWST's light-gathering ability is more than twice than that of Hubble and its size is bigger than two double-decker buses. Since the telescope instruments need to be cooled to -267°C, JWST orbits the Earth on the other side of the Moon, cloaked in its shadow, and protected from the Sun. 

Last April, Nasa confirmed that JWST was fully aligned, allowing it to image distant stars and galaxies in unprecedented detail.

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