Our time machine works: James Webb Telescope delivers first images from birth of universe

It was in the early 1990s when astronomers, excited by the sharpness of images captured by the Hubble Telescope, decided to go beyond the single mirror segment and build something that could wow not just them but the coming generations, unravel a new era in astronomy, space engineering and well photography for the masses.

The idea was a telescope, and work began under the Next Generation Space Telescope Project. Over two decades later, $10 billion down, that spacecraft has wowed the world.

Nasa released the first colour images and spectrography captured by the observatory revealing the sky teeming with galaxies. The series of images showed the deepest infrared image of the universe ever taken, along with the first detailed signatures of exoplanet WASP-96B located 1000 light-years away and nearly twice the size of Jupiter. Webb captured the signature of water on the giant gas planet.

Nasa also released an image of a dying star expelling gas and dust that Webb sees through in unprecedented detail. The Southern Ring nebula is a planetary nebula comprising of shells of dust and gas shed by dying Sun-like stars.

Compare views of the Southern Ring nebula and its pair of stars by Webb’s NIRCam (L) & MIRI (R) instruments. (Photo: Nasa)

The apparatus that opened a new window into the vastness of the cosmos was in 2002 named the James Webb Space Telescope. It began science operations on Tuesday, revealing to the world its hair-thin sensitivity, near-infrared vision and unique ability to peer back into time nearly 13 billion years in past. The telescope has enough fuel to continue operations for at least 20 years.

The image released today also included a cosmic dance of five galaxies in what is dubbed Stephan’s Quintet, a galaxy cluster showing huge shockwaves and tidal tails. The fifth and final image showed new details about previously hidden baby stars, now uncovered by Webb in the Carina Nebula.

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The James Webb Space Telescope is a successor to the Hubble Telescope that has been jointly developed by the American space agency, Nasa, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. The flying observatory was launched on Christmas day in 2021 from Kourou in French Guiana to its destination at the Second Lagrangian Point (L2), nearly 15,00,000 kilometres away from Earth to look back in time and see the first moments after the birth of the universe, a phenomenon known as the Big Bang.

Stephan’s Quintet, a galaxy cluster showing huge shockwaves and tidal tails captured by James Webb Telescope. (Photo: Nasa)

The spacecraft had been cooling and calibrating its science instruments in the darkness of space for nearly six months, after arriving at L2 following a month-long journey. During the journey, engineers tactfully deployed its sails, opened up its 18 golden mirror segments that were folded to fit into the rocket fairing at launch, and began cooling it down to optimum temperatures to look at the universe in near-infrared wavelengths.

Nobel laureate John Mather, the brain behind the Webb telescope said, “It all started with the idea of what happened after the big bang, how did the galaxies grow, black holes grow and how did it all reach from that first moment to here?”


The observatory has been designed to take us back in time and find answers to the inherent question in our minds: how did we come to be? The James Webb Telescope has been equipped with four state-of-the-art instruments that make it capable of witnessing the first light from that mega-event — the Big Bang.

Carina Nebula as seen by James Webb Telescope. (Photo: Nasa)

Astronomers will study the formation of galactic structures nearly 13.5 billion light-years away, at a time when the universe was in its infancy and the first stars were only just emerging out of the darkness and bathing the Universe in light. Not just galaxies, the spacecraft will also be able to peer through the thick clouds and into the atmosphere of exoplanets, worlds that could be mired with possibilities of life, and even habitability.

Its near-infrared vision will give it a unique ability that has so far been obscured at optical wavelengths and we will be able to look into regions where new stars are being born.

See Pic | Ahead of big reveal, test images clicked by James Webb telescope show cosmos from 13 billion years ago


Even before the first images were revealed, a teaser image revealed by President Joe Biden on early Tuesday morning showed the finesse and observational power of the spacecraft that goes beyond Hubble.

The deepest, sharpest infrared view of the universe to date: Webb’s First Deep Field. (Photo: Nasa Webb)

While the primary mirror of the Hubble telescope has a diameter of 2.4 meters, Webb’s exceeds at 6.5 meters and has 17 more mirror segments than its predecessor that are gold plated. With a larger collecting area for light coming from distant cosmic sources, the sensitivity is beyond description. The image revealed by Nasa packed thousands of ancient galaxies in an area that is just a grain of sand when held at an arm’s length on Earth.

“It was incredible to see this stunning multi-colour image of the galaxy cluster, complete with beautiful “arcs” that arise due to the bending of light from objects that lie behind massive clusters of galaxies. To be able to achieve such sensitivity and resolution at infrared wavelengths is truly paradigm-shifting, opening up a whole range of possibilities,” Astronomer Aayush Saxen, who has been awarded time to work on JWST told indiatoday.in.

A scale model of James Webb Telescope. (Photo: Nasa)

With the first images now out, the world knows the power of science, astronomy and engineering. While these streams are amazing individually, they can do wonders when combined together. The James Webb Space Telescope is one such instrument that brings the power of these fields into view and has turned imagination into possibility and possibilities into reality.

Also Read | Clouds on these planets are made up of sand

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