Here are the most breathtaking images from the James Webb Space Telescope
It's time to feast your eyes on the wonders of Webb.
A long 25 years had passed, along with $10 billion between when the James Webb Space Telescope was first devised and finally launched on December 25, 2021, atop a European Ariane 5 rocket.
Now in orbit of the second Lagrange point (L2) beyond the moon, it's carrying out science operations that have already changed the shape of astronomy, astrophysics, and many other fields for keeps.
Even in Webb's earliest days in L2, we were given a taste of the observatory's exciting future — with test images sent back from Webb. Each of those tests hinted at the unprecedented power of the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.
And now the actual show has begun.
Pre-science mission observations
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) began science operations in early July, around the same time the first images were revealed to the world.
Those following the space observatory's journey closely, from its launch on Christmas day, 2021, will know that the James Webb team released images before scientific observations — mainly as part of its months-long instrument calibration campaign. Let's deeply dive into Webb's earliest days in space and what came after.
1. James Webb Space Telescope alignment image of 2MASS J17554042+6551277
At the end of a procedure called "fine phasing", the JWST's primary mirror — which is comprised of 18 hexagonal segments — was moved into focus by directing the telescope at a singular star, 2MASS J17554042+6551277, with few others in its vicinity, on March 11, 2022. This was called the alignment image. However, combining the 18 distinct images brought the resolution accuracy to an astounding 50 nanometers. And this is only a fraction of the wavelengths Webb will capture when it starts.
"While we have only seen a few test images from Webb so far, my favorite is probably the alignment image," said Klaus Pontoppidan, a project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) located in Baltimore, Maryland, in an emailed statement to IE. "This single star shows that the telescope is nearly perfectly in focus, a ground-breaking engineering accomplishment."
Most people only see the star in the middle — which is admittedly pretty. But the real beauty is the unconscionable abundance of ancient galaxies in the background. "[W]e also see a stunning field of distant galaxies; in this brief snapshot, Webb already reached across the Universe, providing a glimpse of the science to come," added Pontoppidan to IE.
And, it turns out, this kind of cosmic detail will happen naturally the longer Webb takes to snap an image. "In a very real sense, when Webb spends more than 20 minutes taking an image it will show this background of galaxies, rivaling or surpassing the famous Hubble Deep Field," said Pontoppidan.
2. Webb's image of an 18-star mosaic
Back in February of 2022, the JWST released an incredible smattering of 18 stars spread throughout a black background. But the image is a trick: All of the bright stars above are actually one, and it's located in the constellation Ursa Major — also called HD 84406. It only appears to be many because Webb's mirror segments had yet to complete alignment.
This apparent cosmic chaos happened because the telescope's unaligned mirror segments would reflect light into the telescope's instruments. "We have aligned and focused the telescope on a star, and the performance is beating specifications," said Deputy Optical Telescope Element Manager for Webb, Ritva Keski-Kuha, in a NASA blog post.
"More than 20 years ago, the JWST team set out to build the most powerful telescope that anyone has ever put in space, and they came up with an optical design to meet the science goals," said Thomas Zurbuchen, an associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, in the same blog post.
3. James Webb Telescope's image of the Large Magellanic Cloud
A more recent image of Webb's came on May 9: an incredible view of the Large Magellanic Cloud — a satellite galaxy near the Milky Way, and captured by the coldest instrument aboard the telescope: the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). It zoomed in on a star field within the satellite galaxy and tested the James Webb Space Telescope's imaging capability.
The image was juxtaposed to another, older one from the Spitzer Space Telescope (now retired), and it served to emphasize the high-resolution power of Webb's near- and mid-infrared potential. "Webb, with its significantly larger primary mirror and improved detectors, will allow us to see the infrared sky with improved clarity, enabling even more discoveries," read a different blog post from NASA.
Science mission observations
President Joe Biden finally heralded the beginning of James Webb's science operations on July 11 when he joined NASA Administrator Bill Nelson to show the first image the space agency decided to reveal to the world. It was a stunning collection of galaxies, some more than 13 billion years old.
The following day, NASA held another press conference, live-streamed on its website and YouTube channel for all to see. It revealed four more glorious images from the now-iconic infrared observatory.
4. SMACS 0723
The first James Webb image revealed to the public was a dream come true for scientists and science enthusiasts worldwide. U.S. President Joe Biden revealed the image to the world on July 11 during a live-streamed press event at the White House alongside NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
During the reveal event, NASA described it as the "deepest, sharpest infrared view of the universe to date."
The incredible image contains a cluster of galaxies some 4 billion light-years away from Earth. Some of the galaxies in the image are roughly 13 billion years old, making them almost as old as the universe itself.
5. The Carina Nebula
A day after the SMACS 0723 image was revealed, NASA held a press conference revealing several other stunning images of the cosmos. Perhaps the most impressive of all these was the Carina Nebula image, which perfectly illustrates Webb's ability to peer through dust clouds and uncover the stellar nurseries beneath.
The Carina Nebula is one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky, and it is located roughly 7,600 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina. Nebulae are stellar nurseries, meaning they are a location where new stars form and the earliest evolution of stars can be observed — in more detail than ever thanks to Webb's state-of-the-art instruments.
6. The Southern Ring nebula
During the reveal event, the day after the unveiling with President Biden, NASA also showed off a pair of images of the Southern Ring nebula taken by James Webb's Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) cameras.
The two images show off the power of James Webb and the different perspectives given by its two main cameras. The dying star at the center of the images, located approximately 2,000 light-years away from Earth, has been sending rings of gas and dust out into the cosmos for thousands of years.
7. The Cartwheel galaxy
A James Webb image revealed in August shows new details about star formation and the black hole at the center of the Cartwheel Galaxy. The image explicitly highlights the Cartwheel Galaxy and two smaller galaxies. Much like in the image of SMACS 0723, the smaller objects in the background are all galaxies.
The Cartwheel Galaxy is located approximately 500 million light-years away in the Sculptor constellation. The galaxy resembles a wagon wheel due to an ancient collision between itself and a smaller galaxy. So the Cartwheel Galaxy is essentially the result of a massive ancient galaxy merger.
8. Spiral galaxy IC5332
Once again, James Webb peered through cosmic dust to capture complex structures inside a spiral galaxy 29 million light years away. Spiral galaxy IC5332 is almost face-on in relation to Earth, meaning Webb was able to capture a comprehensive view of the galaxy.
IC5332 is estimated to have a diameter of roughly 66,000 light-years and measures approximately two-thirds the size of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Webb used its Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) to capture this image.
9. The merging galaxies of IC 1623
One of the Webb team's primary goals is to observe star formation like never before. IC 1623 is an excellent example as it constitutes two galaxies merging and creating new stars — at a rate 20 times faster than our own Milky Way galaxy — amid all of the destruction.
The merging galaxies are located approximately 270 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Cetus. Astronomers believe cosmic collision may form a black hole at the center of the two merging galaxies. However, no images provide evidence for one of the space giants.
10. A protostar within the dark cloud L1527
James Webb recently showed off its capabilities by capturing a star cocooned within a dark cloud named L1527. Prior to Webb, those dark clouds made it difficult for astronomers to carry out detailed observations of the young protostar lying within.
And all this is just the beginning. James Webb has only just begun its actual science missions — over the next decade, and it could provide us with the first "true" image of atmospheres on alien worlds beyond our solar system.
It'll even help reveal the evolution of ancient and supermassive black holes (the list is long). One thing's for certain: now that Webb's begun its science missions in earnest, updates and new images will continue to increase in frequency. And with each release moving through the media world in waves, the world will enjoy a new kind of astronomy, accelerating to unprecedented speeds in discovery and scientific impact. And we're alive to see it all.
This article was co-authored by Brad Bergan and Chris Young.