The first color image from thewas unveiled at the White House on Monday, heralding the beginning of science operations by the world’s most powerful space observatory. NASA plans to release additional “first light” images Tuesday.
“This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground,” NASA said, adding that the image, which shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago, comprises “Thousands of galaxies – including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared.”
The photos are designed to show off Webb’s ability to capture light from the first generation of stars and galaxies; to chart the details of stellar evolution, from starbirth to death by supernova; and to study the chemical composition of exoplanet atmospheres.
Over the past 30 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has become one of the mostin astronomical history, helping astronomers pin down the age of the universe, confirming the presence of supermassive black holes, capturing the deepest views of the cosmos ever collected and providing fly-by class images of planets in Earth’s solar system.
But Webb, operating at just a few degrees above absolute zero behind a tennis-court size sunshade, promises to push the boundaries of human knowledge even deeper with a 21.3-foot-wide segmented primary mirror capable of detecting the faint, stretched-out infrared light from the era when stars began “turning on” in the wake of the Big Bang.
, Webb is stationed in a nearly 1 million miles from Earth. For the past six months, engineers and scientists have been working through a complex series of deployments, activations and checkouts, fine tuning the telescope’s focus and optimizing the performance of its four science instruments.
The initial images being released Monday and Tuesday, selected by an international team of astronomers, will “demonstrate to the world that Webb is, in fact, ready for science, and that it produces excellent and spectacular results,” said Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
“And it’s also to highlight the breadth, the sheer breadth of science that can be done with Webb and to highlight all of the four science instruments,” he added. “And last but not least, to celebrate the beginning of normal science operations.”