Less than a century ago, we humans believed that the universe ended at the edge of the Milky Way. As the last starlight in our home galaxy faded, an endless nothing began.
Until Edwin Hubble. The famed astronomer diligently scoured the skies for blinking stars from Mount Wilson Observatory in California. His work with the Hooker telescope nearly doubled the size of the universe in 1923, when he and others helped reveal that Andromeda was not a tightly packed bunch of stars. in the Milky Way, but its own galaxy, 2.5 million light-years away. Hubble knew how powerful advances in technology were: bigger and better telescopes would help expand our horizons ever further.
Eighty years later, Hubble’s namesake space telescope will once again alter our view of the cosmic horizon with the release ofa photograph of the universe that goes back so far in space and time that it has revealed galaxies born just 600 million years after the Big Bang.
Today, since July 11, 2022, our horizon is widening again. One hundred years of progress – in telescope, astronomy, astrophysics, engineering, rocket science, math, hell, and even online video streaming – led NASA to unveil the first image obtained by the James Webb Space Telescope.
After a long wait which led to a warm-up NASA TV “music on hold” online discussion, it was President Joe Biden who had the honor of posting Webb’s first look across the universe, an image dubbed “Webb’s First Deep Field” on Monday. The press conference but it delivered a first historical image from the other side of the cosmos.
“If you hold a grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm’s length, that’s the part of the universe you see – just a tiny speck,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. during the press conference.
The full image is below.
The deep field examines a corner of space known as SMACS 0723, which has been observed by space telescopes such as Hubble. It contains a gigantic cluster of galaxies that function like a lens, magnifying the light of galaxies much further out in the cosmos.
One of the most notable aspects of this Webb image – and future images – is the six-pointed light you can see in the image, based on the shape of the James Webb Telescope mirrors.
There is also a circular smudge of light in the center of the image. This is the “lens” effect. The gravity of huge foreground clusters, which are only about 4 billion light-years away, are changing how light from deep space reaches the telescope. In some cases, galaxies appear in two places because of the effect, and astronomers can study this light to better understand what these deep galaxies look like.
When compared to the Hubble image of the same region, the difference is… breathtaking.
The image itself is not exactly “straight out of the telescope”. That’s not what Webb sees. Webb’s imaging capabilities capture infrared light from black and white cosmic objects, similar to Hubble, and image processing software is used to reveal all the intricacies of space. Those who helped create the images then perform a feat of technical and artistic magic: they map infrared wavelengths to colors to highlight the most significant features of an image.
Some of the galaxies in the image only existed a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Due to Webb’s powerful optics, we see them for the first time. What’s really interesting about them is that they seem larger than galaxies that are technically much closer.
“The reddest galaxies in the image are much further away from us than the bluest ones – so you’d expect them to look smaller than the blue ones,” says Jonti Horner, an astrophysicist at the University of Southern California. Queensland in Australia. Instead, he notes, the reddest galaxies appear much larger due to a light quirk known as “angular diameter flipping.” It will make your head hurt, but when these ancient galaxies first emitted light, the universe was much more compact, which means they were much closer at the time. Gah!
While the Deep Field delights, it’s just the entrance. Tomorrow, NASA will provide a buffet of Webb images to feast on a groundbreaking look at deep space. The release will highlight dazzling nebulae, illuminate alien worlds and draw the curtain back on a cluster of colliding galaxies. If that first image is anything to go by, you’ll want to binge on these too. We’ve got you covered: Here’s when and where to catch the gout, but you can also watch the CNET Highlights live stream, which we’ve embedded below.
Updated 6:00 PM PT: comments added