Humanity’s fascination with the cosmos is a tale as old as time. We started off by laying underneath the star-lit skies, gazing and naming the sparkling objects millions of lightyears away from us, but our curiosity about what lay beyond our humble planet only grew over the centuries. And this curiosity is what led to the invention of telescopes.
Early telescopes, of course, had limited scope and could only help us spot some of the planets in our solar system. But since the end of the twentieth century, telescopes have been able to spot distant galaxies, nebulae, comets and whatnot.
We think it is safe to say that humanity took a gigantic leap towards satisfying its curiosity when NASA sent off the most powerful telescope created to date, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), to space in December 2021. And on Monday, after nearly eight months of waiting with bated breath, the JWST’s first full-colour image was finally released — and what a picture it is!
In what is most certainly the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the early universe ever taken, we can spot numerous tiny galaxies in stunning detail.
This 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, NASA said.
The Webb telescope was created to solve the mysteries in our solar system, look beyond distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it.
And indeed, the hauntingly beautiful image perfectly captures the arduous journey of light through billions of years, showcasing a cluster of galaxies 4.6 billion lightyears away. Also, the combined mass of this galaxy cluster distorts spacetime and acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying the objects behind the cluster and allowing astronomers a peek at 13 billion years into the early universe.
The best part? The JWST managed to create this picture after just 12.5 hours of exposure — so imagine what it could do in a week or perhaps a month!
Hubble, the predecessor of the Webb telescope, revolutionised our understanding of the universe’s enormity. But the eXtreme Deep Field, one of Hubble’s most well-known images, displays just smudges of light corresponding to 5,500 galaxies that took weeks to capture.
But astronomers can now focus on the tiniest particles in Hubble, thanks to Webb.
Many are comparing the picture qualities of the images taken by the Webb and Hubble telescopes, and the difference is undoubtedly glaring.
The newly-released image also has some enthusiasts discussing the possibility of time travel being real!
Although this initial image offers the most in-depth look at the cosmos so far, astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore said that “this is not a record that will stand for very long.”
“Scientists will very quickly beat that record and go even deeper,” he added during a press briefing on June 29.
This photograph is merely the first. A group of closely interacting galaxies, a stellar birthplace, a nebula surrounding a dying star, the first spectrum of an exoplanet’s light and a clue to its composition — all of this will be revealed in more initial photographs, set to be released later today (July 12). These pictures only scratch the surface of what the JWST will eventually show us throughout the course of its more-than-a-decade-long mission.
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