WATCH | 'All of us are just blown away' - NASA reveals stunning James Webb Space Telescope images

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  • NASA revealed images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope.
  • The instrument was launched on 25 December 2021.
  • Its cost was $9 billion.

NASA on Tuesday drew back the curtain on billions of years of cosmic evolution with the inaugural batch of photos from the largest, most powerful observatory ever launched to space, saying the luminous imagery showed the telescope exceeds expectations.

The first full-colour, high-resolution pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope, designed to peer farther than before with greater clarity to the dawn of the universe, were hailed by NASA as milestone marking a new era of astronomical exploration.

READ | Tiny meteoroid bops $10 billion Webb space telescope

Nearly two decades in the making and built under contract for NASA by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp, the $9 billion infrared telescope was launched on 25 December 2021. 

It reached its destination in solar orbit nearly 1.6 million kilometres from Earth a month later.

With Webb finely tuned after months spent remotely aligning its mirrors and calibrating its instruments, scientists will embark on a competitively selected agenda exploring the evolution of galaxies, life cycle of stars, atmospheres of distant exoplanets, and moons of our outer solar system.

Amber Straughn said:

All of us are just blown away.

She is the Webb deputy project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and was among a panel of experts who briefed reporters following the big reveal.

Whoops and hollers from a sprightly "cheer team" welcomed some 300 scientists, telescope engineers, politicians and senior officials from NASA and its international partners into a packed and auditorium at Goddard for the official unveiling.

"I didn't know I was coming to a pep rally," NASA Administrator James Nelson said from the stage, enthusing that Webb's "every image is a discovery".

The event was simulcast to watch parties of astronomy enthusiasts worldwide, from Bhopal, India, to Vancouver, British Columbia.

The first photos, which took weeks to render from raw telescope data, were selected by NASA to show off Webb's capabilities and foreshadow science missions ahead.

The crowning debut image, previewed on Monday by US President Biden but displayed with greater fanfare on Tuesday, was a "deep field" photo of a distant galaxy cluster, SMACS 0723, revealing the most detailed glimpse of the early universe recorded to date.

This image released by NASA from the James Webb Sp
This image released by NASA from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) shows a landscape of 'mountains' and 'valleys' speckled with glittering stars which is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula.

At least one faint galaxy measured among the thousands in the image is nearly 95% as old as the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set the expansion of the known universe in motion some 13.8 billion years ago, NASA said.

Among the four other Webb subjects getting their closeups on Tuesday were two enormous clouds of gas and dust blasted into space by stellar explosions to form incubators for new stars - the Carina Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, each thousands of light years away from Earth.

This handout composite image by NASA/ESA shows the dawn of a new era in astronomy has begun as the world gets its first look at the full capabilities of the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope's first full-colour images and spectroscopic data, which uncover a spectacular collection of cosmic features that have remained elusive.
In this still picture from a NASA TV broadcast, the James Webb Space Telescope separates from Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket after launching from Europe's Spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana.
This image released by NASA is a composite of the information captured by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) showing a landscape of 'mountains' and 'valleys' speckled with glittering stars which is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. This image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth.
This image released by NASA shows that the James W
This image released by NASA shows that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has revealed the cloak of dust around the second star, shown at left in red, at the centre of the Southern Ring Nebula for the first time. It is a hot dense white dwarf star.
This image released by NASA from the Mid-Infrared
This image released by NASA from the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) shows never-before-seen details of Stephan's Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies. MIRI pierced through dust-enshrouded regions to reveal huge shock waves and tidal tails, gas and stars stripped from the outer regions of the galaxies by interactions. It also unveiled hidden areas of star formation. The new information from MIRI provides invaluable insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe.
This image released by NASA shows Stephan's Quinte
This image released by NASA shows Stephan's Quintet captured by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a visual grouping of five galaxies, in a new light. This enormous mosaic is JWST's largest image to date, covering about one-fifth of the Moon's diameter. It contains over 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1 000 separate image files.

The collection also included fresh images of another galaxy cluster known as Stephan's Quintet, first discovered in 1877, which encompasses several galaxies NASA described as "locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters".

Apart from the imagery, NASA presented Webb's first spectrographic analysis of a Jupiter-sized exoplanet more than 1 100 light years away - revealing the molecular signatures of filtered light passing through its atmosphere, including the presence of water vapor. Scientists have raised the possibility of eventually detecting water on the surface of smaller, rockier Earth-like exoplanets in the future.

Built to view its subjects chiefly in the infrared spectrum, Webb is about 100 times more sensitive than its 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which operates mainly at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

The much larger light-collecting surface of Webb's primary mirror - an array of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal - enables it to observe objects at greater distances, thus further back in time, than any other telescope. 

Its infrared optics allow Webb to detect a wider range of celestial objects and see through clouds of dust and gas that obscure light in the visible spectrum.

All five of Webb's introductory targets were previously known to scientists, but NASA officials said Webb's early imagery proved it works as designed, better than expected, while literally capturing its subjects in an entirely new light.

The image of Southern Ring Nebula, for instance, clearly showed the dying stellar object at its centre was a binary pair of stars closely orbiting one another. 

The new Carina Nebula photos exposed contours of its massive clouds never seen before.

"This is an art piece that has been revealed by this telescope," Rene Doyon, principal investigator for the observatory's Canadian-built near-infrared camera and spectrograph. 

Doyon added:

It goes beyond my scientific mind.

The SMACS 0723 image showed a 4.6 billion-year-old galaxy cluster whose combined mass acts as a "gravitational lens", distorting space to greatly magnify light coming from more distant galaxies behind it.

One of the older galaxies appearing in the "background" of the photo - a composite of images of different wavelengths of light - dates back about 13.1 billion years.

The bejewelled-like photo, according to NASA, offers the "most detailed view of the early universe" as well as the "deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant cosmos" yet taken.

Underscoring the vastness of the universe, the thousands of galaxies appearing in the SMACS 0723 image appear in a tiny patch of sky roughly the size of a sand grain held at arm's length by someone standing on Earth.

The Webb telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies.

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