NASA Reveals First Full-Color Image from James Webb Space Telescope

The largest and most complex space observatory officially begins operations.

President Joe Biden proudly displayed the first full-color image from the James Webb Space Telescope—history’s largest and most complex space observatory—Monday at the White House.

With assistance from Vice President Kamala Harris and NASA administrator Bill Nelson, Biden unveiled the image more than six months after the telescope rocketed into space.  The breathtaking image, showing countless stars and galaxies, drew applause during the event which was broadcast live on NASA TV.

The image shows a deep field view taken by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). It’s a composite made from images at different wavelengths, totaling 12.5 hours— achieving depths at infrared wavelengths beyond the Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest fields, NASA said in a release.

“Today represents an exciting new chapter in the exploration of our universe,” said Harris, who also chairs the National Space Council. “It will enhance what we know about the origins of the universe, our solar system, and possibly life itself.”

“It symbolizes the relentless spirit of American ingenuity and it shows what we can achieve,” Biden said.

Named after former NASA administrator James Webb, engineers and scientists designed the telescope to explore “every phase of cosmic history,” according to the agency. It has the ability to study objects within our solar system along with the most distant observable galaxies. Essentially, the JWST was created to learn more about the origins of the universe.

“What you’re seeing there are galaxies that are shining around other galaxies whose light has been bent and [what] you’re seeing is just a small little portion of the universe,” said Nelson, referring to the image. “That light that you’re seeing on one of those little specs has been traveling for more than 13 billion years. We’re going back to almost the beginning.”

During the White House presentation, NASA scientists were absent, except for static portraits of three unnamed individuals on a big screen adjacent to the Webb Telescope’s historic first color image.

In February, the telescope—which cost $10 billion to develop—sent its first black-and-white images to Earth depicting a single star and an outer space selfie.

Additional images from the telescope, which is orbiting 1 million miles from Earth, are expected to be released during a separate NASA event Tuesday. Scientists have said the first images would be aimed at showcasing the telescope’s powerful instruments as well as previewing upcoming missions.

An International Project

The JWST was built by a team led by Northrop Grumman in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The telescope is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and oversees work performed by the Space Telescope Science Institute and other mission partners in addition to Northrop Grumman.

The telescope’s primary mirror measures 6.5 meters in diameter. It’s coated with gold and made of strong, lightweight beryllium. [Courtesy: NASA]

Its journey began December 25, 2021, when it launched from the ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana. The telescope took a month to reach its destination orbit, where it then unfurled its five-layer, tennis court-sized sunshield. Five additional months were required for scientists to deploy and precisely align its primary mirrors.

In May, the telescope sustained minor damage when a micrometeoroid hit its primary mirror, prompting scientists to make minor adjustments to compensate. Mission planners have said they expect small objects flying through space to come in contact with the JWST from time to time. 

The release of the first color image marks the official beginning of Webb’s operations. Teams of scientists based around the world have already applied through a competitive process to use the telescope. 

NASA has hinted at some of the images that could be coming soon from the JWST, including spectacular views of giant planets made mostly of gas, dying stars, and clusters of galaxies far, far away. 


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