A cluster of galaxies and bright points of light in the James Webb Space Telescope's first image

The James Webb Space Telescope's first photo was of SMACS 0723, the gravity of which can reveal images of the early universe not long after the Big Bang. Image © NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

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James Webb Space Telescope reveals its first spectacular images of the universe

The most powerful telescope ever built has taken its first images of space.

With targets including a giant planet and spanning the birth and death of stars, the James Webb Space Telescope is set to give us our clearest view of the universe so far. 

Some of the most detailed images of the universe ever taken have been revealed.

NASA unveiled a group of full-colour images and data taken by the James Webb Space Telescope today, following the release of the first image by President Joe Biden yesterday evening.

The first image showed SMACS 0723, a cluster of galaxies located 4.6 billion light years from Earth. While the cluster is itself impressive, the smaller pinpricks of light behind them are the real prize, representing the universe as it was less than one billion years after the Big Bang.

NASA's head, administrator Bill Nelson, says, 'We're looking back more than 13 billion years.  Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, and the light that you are seeing from one of those little specks has been traveling for over 13 billion years.'

'This is just the first image, and we're going back further in the future to about 13.5 billion years. Since we know the universe is 13.8 billion years old, we’re going back almost to the beginning.'

'When you look at something as big as this is, we are going to be able to answer questions that we don't even know the questions for yet.'

Among the other pictures taken by Webb during its scientific debut include breathtaking views of Stephan's Quintet, the first compact galaxy group ever discovered, and the Carina Nebula, which is one of the brightest in the sky. 

The images mark the beginning of the telescope's scientific mission, following eight months of activation and testing since its launch.  

An infrared image of Stephan's Quintet

Stephan's Quintet sees a group of galaxies merging into one. Image © NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is one of the most advanced scientific instruments ever constructed and is named after a former NASA administrator. While led by NASA, it was also developed by the European and Canadian space agencies.

It is designed to operate for a minimum of five years, but the scientists behind the project estimate it should continue to work for more than double that length of time. 

Unlike its predecessor, Hubble, JWST is an infrared telescope which allows it to observe a different part of the spectrum of light. Infrared has a wavelength that is longer than visible light, allowing astronomers to see through the atmosphere of other planets and dense gas clouds.

JWST is also significantly bigger than Hubble, with a mirror over 2.5 times as big. This allows it to peer back even further into the universe's past, with an additional sunshield to block out light which would interfere with its sensitive systems. 

An infrared image of the Carina Nebula

The Carina nebula represents some of the first stages of a star's life as it forms out of dust and gas collapsing in on itself. Image © NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

What do the James Webb Space Telescope's first images show?

JWST's first image of SMACS 0723 makes use of a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing to see deeper into the past.

Gravity is produced by anything with mass and is able to bend the fabric of spacetime which makes up the universe. At the scale of a human body, for instance, this change isn't noticeable, but at the scale of stars and galaxies the universe is visibly warped into a different shape.

When light passes through one of these areas, it appears to bend around the object. This produces a magnified, distorted image of the light's source, which astronomers use to examine ancient celestial bodies that would otherwise be too dim to see from Earth.

Just like SMACS 0723, Stephan's Quintet is also composed of galaxies. It is known as a compact group, with four of its galaxies repeatedly passing and colliding with each other as they begin to merge into a single body.

Elsewhere, JWST examined two nebulae known as the Carina Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula. While both are formed of clouds of dust and gas, they represent different parts of a star's life. While the Carina Nebula is where stars are formed, the Southern Ring Nebula is formed of matter ejected from a dying star.

JWST also demonstrated its ability to examine exoplanets, focusing its sensors on WASP-96b. This giant planet is mostly made of gas and is about half as big as Jupiter. JWST has analysed its atmosphere ahead of future projects which will look for signs of volcanic activity, water and perhaps even the chemical signatures of life itself.

The satellite will now begin working through 286 programmes for its first year, including studies which will investigate a range of topics from the formation of the first galaxies to the climate of Pluto.