The first image of the James Webb telescope, the largest ever launched into space, was revealed this Monday at an event at the White House in which the president of the United States, Joe Biden, participated. The photograph shows “a grain of sand on the tip of a finger with the arm held”, according to the analogy made by NASA director Bill Nelson, who referred to the space photographed as “a small portion of the universe”. Appearing in the image is an area of space called SMACS 0723, where huge star clusters work like a magnifying glass due to their enormous gravitational pull, amplifying the light of past galaxies. It is one of the places most studied by the Hubble telescope, although the photograph revealed this Monday has a resolution and level of detail never seen before due to the complexity of the Webb, which will serve, among other things, to replace Hubble.
An image confirms the existence of a supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy
“These images will remind the world … that there is nothing beyond the ability of Americans,” Biden said during his speech before the presentation of the photograph. The James Webb is operated jointly by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
This Monday’s event has served to offer a sample of what, starting today, Tuesday, will become a succession of revelations, as space agencies release, one by one, the first images for scientific use of the telescope. Until now, the telescope has only looked at star clusters in well-studied locations – such as the Large Magellanic Cloud – to test the calibration of its instruments.
We are looking more than 13 billion years back in time
— NASA Administrator
“We are looking more than 13 billion years back in time,” said Nelson, explaining that the Webb telescope will allow scientists to study the light from the first stars that formed in the universe. “In addition – he added –, it will be possible to see if there are habitable planets, thanks to the fact that we will be able to determine the chemical composition of their atmosphere with the telescope”.
Apart from the image revealed on Monday, space agencies are expected to reveal photos of the Southern Ring Nebula, the Carina Nebula or Stephan’s Quintet, among other cosmic targets popular with astronomers.
Thanks to its great sensitivity, the James Webb will be able to observe the light of galaxies only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, which will give an idea of the formation of our universe.
Since the telescope managed to unfurl its huge hexagon-shaped mirror earlier this year, all of the state-of-the-art systems, cameras, spectrographs and coronagraphs have performed above scientists’ expectations.
However, in May it suffered a small impact from a micrometeorite larger than what engineers expected it to have to deal with in its place in space. In any case, experts have indicated that it continues to function at a level that “exceeds mission requirements, despite a marginally detectable effect on the data.”