James Webb Telescope Captures Record-Breaking View of the Cosmos

Long-awaited images from the $10-billion space observatory inspire awe and wonder.

James Webb space telescope first image
Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723.


After more than two decades and billions of dollars, the initial dream that sparked the creation of the James Webb Space Telescope has been fully realized.

During a live stream Monday afternoon on NASA TV, President Biden unveiled the Webb’s "first light" full-color image of the deepest view of the universe ever taken. Called SMACS 0723, the image shows a dense cluster of galaxies that act as a massive gravitational lens, warping and magnifying the light from thousands of distant galaxies in the background that would otherwise be too faint to see. According to NASA, the light in this image stretches back more than 13 billion years. 

"Known as Webb’s First Deep Field, this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail,” NASA wrote in its press release of the historic image. “Thousands of galaxies—including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared—have appeared in Webb’s view for the first time. 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 will unveil additional images on Tuesday, July 12, along with commentary on each from the agency and Webb leadership. A list of these additional targets, as well as brief descriptions from NASA, is available below:

  • Carina Nebula: The Carina Nebula is one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky, located approximately 7,600 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina. Nebulae are stellar nurseries where stars form. The Carina Nebula is home to many massive stars, several times larger than the sun.
  • WASP-96 b (spectrum): WASP-96 b is a giant planet outside our solar system, composed mainly of gas. The planet, located nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, orbits its star every 3.4 days. It has about half the mass of Jupiter, and its discovery was announced in 2014.
  • Southern Ring Nebula: The Southern Ring, or “Eight-Burst” nebula, is a planetary nebula—an expanding cloud of gas, surrounding a dying star. It is nearly half a light-year in diameter and is located approximately 2,000 light-years away from Earth.
  • Stephan’s Quintet: About 290 million light-years away, Stephan’s Quintet is located in the constellation Pegasus. It is notable for being the first compact galaxy group ever discovered in 1877. Four of the five galaxies within the quintet are locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters.
  • SMACS 0723: Massive foreground galaxy clusters magnify and distort the light of objects behind them, permitting a deep field view into both the extremely distant and intrinsically faint galaxy populations.

Previous to the big reveal, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, described the images as “an emotional milestone for humanity” that will forever change our knowledge of the cosmos. 

“It’s a new world view of nature giving away secrets that have been there for many decades, centuries and millennia,” he added.

Power in Perspective

We’ve covered why the James Webb Space Telescope is such a game-changer before, but it’s only recently that the first tantalizing hints of its incredible power have reached the public. Leading up to this week’s official images, NASA has been dropping test images taken during the telescope’s calibration over the last several months.

One test image in particular, produced during a thermal stability test in mid-May, was among the deepest images of the universe ever taken. Acquired over 32 hours of exposure time, it shows a few stars and a background littered with thousands of galaxies. Keep in mind, this is a patch of sky only about the width of our moon. 

“The faintest blobs in this image are exactly the types of faint galaxies that Webb will study in its first year of science operations,” Jane Rigby, Webb’s operations scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a blog post

To demonstrate just how powerful Webb is at pulling back the curtain on the cosmos, the University of Hertfordshire Observatory trained its ground-based telescope on the same portion of sky. In a tweet of the resulting image they explained that, “although our image has a few galaxies visible, no detail in them can be seen.”

With the Webb now fully functional, an international team of scientists and researchers from NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Space Telescope Science Institute will turn their attention to moving through a very long list of targets of interest. Among other pursuits, Webb aims to be the first telescope to detect light from some of the universe’s first stars and galaxies.

"The initial goal for this mission was to see the first stars and galaxies," Eric Smith, Webb program scientist at NASA, said during a news conference in June. "Not the first light of the universe, but to watch the universe turn the lights on for the first time."