The James Webb Space Telescope sends back its first stellar photo

Aimed 2,000 light-years away, this test far surpassed all expectations.
Brad Bergan
This rendering of the James Webb Space TelescopeNorthrop Grumman

Welcome to the next chapter of astronomy.

The James Webb Space Telescope has captured its first image, and it revealed that its instruments would enjoy perfect vision into yet-unseen depths of the ancient universe.

NASA released the first image captured by the JWST on Wednesday, March 16, 2021 — which was a test shot and not part of a scientific study — to witness the space telescope 18 hexagonal, yellow mirrors synced into collaboration. Still, the test reveals what this powerful piece of technology can do when pointed at a star roughly 1 million miles away from Earth, according to the space agency's official website.

The telescope captured the image in February 2022, but the consequences will continue to make waves for decades and perhaps centuries.

James Webb first image
The purpose of this image was to focus on the bright star at the center for alignment evaluation. Credits: NASA/STScI

Thousands of galaxies photobombed James Webb Telescope's test image

Scientists were ecstatic when they finally got a glimpse of Webb's test photos that captured the light of a star 100 times fainter than our human eyes can see — 2,000 light-years away from our planet. The James Webb Space Telescope's mirrors, combined with filters that tinted the distant star's light into a red, spiky figure, created the image. But the highlight of the image wasn't the foreground.

Behind the spiky star, thousands of distant galaxies loomed mysteriously, highlighting the unrealized potential of Webb. "You can't help but see those thousands of galaxies behind it, really gorgeous," says Webb Operations Project Scientist Jane Rigby in a press release.

Get more updates on this story and more with The Blueprint, our daily newsletter: Sign up here for free.

To be precise, these distant galaxies are ancient — several billions of years. But this is only a taste of Webb's capabilities, which scientists expect can see as far as "a couple hundred million years after the Big Bang," added Rigby.

The James Webb Space Telescope is about to rock astronomy

As the flagship successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope will give astronomy wave after wave of discovery. Hopes are high that it will not only reveal the chemical content of many alien worlds suspected to have the makings for life but also show the conditions of the very early universe in ways we've only imagined.

James Webb Space Telescope
Also released on Wednesday: A "selfie." This image was created using a specialized pupil imaging lens inside the NIRCam instrument designed to take images of the primary mirror segments instead of images of the sky. This configuration is not used during scientific operations and is used strictly for engineering and alignment purposes. In this image, all of Webb's 18 primary mirror segments are shown collecting light from the same star in unison.

"This summer, Webb will start searching for galaxies in the distant universe," says L.Y. Aaron Yung, a postdoc at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. In 1995, Hubble captured a spectacular image of the ancient universe, called the Hubble Deep Field, of what to the naked eye appears as one of the darkest, emptiest patches of sky.

A few years later, in the early 2000s, Hubble's Ultra-Deep Field image surpassed that accomplishment. Webb's advanced equipment — namely, the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) — should ensure that Hubble's successor will continue that scientific exploration. Namely, the JWST will reveal the distance to ancient galaxies, the types of stars that comprise them, and "the relative abundance of life-giving elements such as oxygen and carbon in their interstellar gas," in the words of NASA.