The most powerful telescope to be placed in orbit, the James Webb Scope Telescope recently revealed the clearest images to date of the early universe.
According to Nasa, the images go back some 13 billion years.
The stunning images were released during a White House briefing by President Joe Biden.
The images are overflowing with thousands of galaxies and features some of the faintest objects observed, colourised in blue, orange and white tones.
Known as Webb’s First Deep Field, it shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, which acts as a gravitational lens, bending light from more distant galaxies behind it towards the observatory, in a cosmic magnification effect.
Webb’s primary imager NIRCam – which operates in the near infrared wavelength spectrum because light from the early universe has been stretched out by the time it reaches us – has brought these faint background galaxies into focus.
Webb compiled the composite shot in 12.5 hours, achieving well beyond what its predecessor the Hubble Space Telescope could in weeks.
Webb has also carried out a spectroscopy – an analysis of light that reveals detailed information – on a gas giant planet called WASP-96 b, which was discovered in 2014.
Nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, WASP-96 b is about half the mass of Jupiter and zips around its star in just 3.4 days.
Launched in December 2021 from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket, Webb is orbiting the Sun at a distance of a million miles (1.6 million kilometres) from Earth, in a region of space called the second Lagrange point.
Here, it remains in a fixed position relative to the Earth and Sun, with minimal fuel required for course corrections.
A wonder of engineering, the total project cost is estimated at US$10 billion, making it one of the most expensive scientific platforms ever built, comparable to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
Webb’s primary mirror is over 21 feet (6.5 meters) wide and is made up of 18 gold-coated mirror segments. Like a camera held in one’s hand, the structure must remain as stable as possible to achieve the best shots.
Charlie Atkinson, chief engineer on the James Webb Space Telescope program at lead contractor Northrop Grumman, told AFP that it wobbles no more than 17 millionths of a millimetre.
After the first images, astronomers around the globe will get shares of time on the telescope, with projects selected competitively through a process in which applicants and selectors don’t know each other’s identities, to minimize bias.
Thanks to an efficient launch, NASA estimates Webb has enough propellant for a 20-year life, as it works in concert with the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes to answer fundamental questions about the cosmos.