James Webb Space Telescope releases first images of the universe's deepest secrets

Faraway galaxies, spectacular nebulae and a giant gaseous planet shown in full colour for the first time

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One of the first full-colour images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope was released by US President Joe Biden on Monday in a step towards uncovering the universe's deepest secrets.

The unveiling took place during a live-streamed event, during which Nasa published a stunning, high-resolution image of the ancient universe brimming with a dizzying kaleidoscope of galaxies that were previously invisible to humankind.

The image showed “the oldest documented light in the history of the universe from over 13 billion — let me say that again — 13 billion years ago. It’s hard to fathom,” Mr Biden said during the unveiling.

The remaining images are set to be released by Nasa on Tuesday.

The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful observatory ever sent into space. Equipped with a 6.5-metre, gold-plated beryllium mirror, the telescope should be able to look into the furthest corners of the universe and snap images of light from galaxies that formed a little after the Big Bang.

Because of the telescope's infrared capabilities, the universe is “giving up secrets that had been there for many, many decades, centuries, millennia,” Thomasi Zurbuchen, Nasa's science mission chief, said in a briefing.

Here are the images Nasa is planning to release:

SMACS 0723

The first image released is of the “deep field” — a long-lasting observation meant to reveal faint objects from the universe.

Nasa said the James Webb Telescope captured the image by pointing its main imager towards galaxy clusters called SMACS 0723, which bend the light of objects far behind them towards the observer, an effect called “gravitational lensing”. Part of the image will include light from not too long after the Big Bang.

Webb's infrared capabilities allow it to peel time further back than any other telescope before it, to roughly 13.8 billion years ago.

Nasa chief Bill Nelson said last month that this would be “deepest image of our Universe that has ever been taken.”

Carina Nebula

Also included in the first wave of images is the Carina Nebula, a massive cloud of dust and gas about 7,600 light years away. The nebula is best known for its “Mystic Mountain”, a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas previously captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

A cluster of young stars resembles an aerial burst, surrounded by clouds of interstellar gas and dust, in nebula NGC 3603 located in the constellation Carina. Nasa / Reuters

Southern Ring Nebula

The Southern Ring Nebula, nearly half a light year in diameter, is 2,000 light years away from Earth.

This “Eight Burst” nebula, consisting of an expanding cloud of gas, surrounds a dying star.

This image shows the Southern Ring Nebula which is visible in the southern hemisphere. AFP / Nasa / The Hubble Heritage Team

WASP-96 b

Webb also conducted a spectroscopy — a study of the absorption and emission of light to reveal other information — on a distant gas giant called WASP-96 b, which was discovered in 2014.

About half the mass of Jupiter and 1,500 light years from earth, the gas giant travels around its star in 3.4 days.

Stephan's Quintet

This galaxy group situated in the constellation Pegasus is located 290 million light years away from Earth. It was the first compact galaxy group ever discovered.

Four of the five quintet's galaxies are “locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters”, Nasa said.

Agencies contributed to this report

US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris preview the first infrared image from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) during a Nasa briefing. AFP
Updated: July 13, 2022, 5:35 AM
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