The First Photographs Taken by the Webb Telescope: See Faraway Galaxies & Nebulae in Unprecedented Detail

Late last year we fea­tured the amaz­ing engi­neer­ing of the James Webb Space Tele­scope, which is now the largest opti­cal tele­scope in space. Capa­ble of reg­is­ter­ing phe­nom­e­na old­er, more dis­tant, and fur­ther off the vis­i­ble spec­trum than any pre­vi­ous device, it will no doubt show us a great many things we’ve nev­er seen before. In fact, it’s already begun: ear­li­er this week, NASA’s God­dard Space Flight Cen­ter released the first pho­tographs tak­en through the Webb tele­scope, which “rep­re­sent the first wave of full-col­or sci­en­tif­ic images and spec­tra the obser­va­to­ry has gath­ered, and the offi­cial begin­ning of Webb’s gen­er­al sci­ence oper­a­tions.”

The areas of out­er space depict­ed in unprece­dent­ed detail by these pho­tos include the Cari­na Neb­u­la (top), the South­ern Ring Neb­u­la (2nd image on this page), and the galaxy clus­ters known as Stephan’s Quin­tet (the home of the angels in It’s a Won­der­ful Life) and SMACS 0723 (bot­tom).

That last, notes Petapix­el’s Jaron Schnei­der, “is the high­est res­o­lu­tion pho­to of deep space that has ever been tak­en,” and the light it cap­tures “has trav­eled for more than 13 bil­lion years.” What this com­pos­ite image shows us, as NASA explains, is SMACS 0723 “as it appeared 4.6 bil­lion years ago” — and its “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.”

All this can be a bit dif­fi­cult to get one’s head around, at least if one is pro­fes­sion­al­ly involved with nei­ther astron­o­my nor cos­mol­o­gy. But few imag­i­na­tions could go un-cap­tured by the rich­ness of the images them­selves. Sharp, rich in col­or, var­ied in tex­ture — and in the case of the Cari­na Neb­u­la or “Cos­mic Cliffs,” NASA adds, “seem­ing­ly three-dimen­sion­al” — they could have come straight from a state-of-the-art sci­ence-fic­tion movie. In fact they out­do even the most advanced sci-fi visions, as NASA’s Earth­rise out­did even the uncan­ni­ly real­is­tic-in-ret­ro­spect views of the Earth from space imag­ined by Stan­ley Kubrick and his col­lab­o­ra­tors in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But these pho­tos are the fruits of a real-life jour­ney toward the final fron­tier, one you can fol­low in real time on NASA’s “Where Is Webb?” track­er. “Webb was designed to spend the next decade in space,” writes Colos­sal’s Grace Ebert. “How­ev­er, a suc­cess­ful launch pre­served sub­stan­tial fuel, and NASA now antic­i­pates a trove of insights about the uni­verse for the next twen­ty years.” That’s quite a long run by the cur­rent stan­dards of space explo­ration — but then, by the scale of space and time the Webb tele­scope has new­ly opened up, even 100 mil­len­nia is the blink of an eye.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Amaz­ing Engi­neer­ing of James Webb Tele­scope

How to Take a Pic­ture of a Black Hole: Watch the 2017 Ted Talk by Katie Bouman, the MIT Grad Stu­dent Who Helped Take the Ground­break­ing Pho­to

How Sci­en­tists Col­orize Those Beau­ti­ful Space Pho­tos Tak­en By the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope

The Very First Pic­ture of the Far Side of the Moon, Tak­en 60 Years Ago

The First Images and Video Footage from Out­er Space, 1946–1959

The Beau­ty of Space Pho­tog­ra­phy

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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