First James Webb Space Telescope image shows 'deepest' view of the universe ever

"Webb's First Deep Field" shows a snapshot of the cosmos as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago.


After 14 years of development and six months of calibration, the James Webb Space Telescope is finally ready to embark on its mission to probe the depths of our cosmos. On Monday, NASA and President Joe Biden shared the first colored image from the space telescope, showcasing a look at the early days of the universe.

According to NASA, "Webb's First Deep Field" represents the sharpest and "deepest" image of the distant universe to date. What you see is a snapshot of a cluster of galaxies known as SMACS 0723 as they appeared 4.6 billion years ago. The combined mass of all the galaxies pictured acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying the much more distant celestial bodies seen in the background. Some of the galaxies have never-before-seen features that astronomers will soon study to learn more about the history of our universe. NASA notes Webb's First Deep Field doesn't represent our earliest look at the universe. Microwave telescopes like the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) captured snapshots closer to the Big Bang but did not offer a view of stars and galaxies like the one captured by Webb.

“Mr. President, if you held a grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm’s length, that is the part of the universe that you’re seeing,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson told President Biden during Monday's briefing. “Just one little speck of the universe.”

Getting to this historic moment has been a long road for NASA. When the JWST was first announced, the agency’s plan was to launch the telescope in 2007. After a redesign in 2005, NASA finally completed work on the project in 2016 and said the spacecraft would be ready to launch by 2018. In 2019, NASA completed assembly of the telescope, but then the pandemic hit, leading to further delays in testing and shipping. All told, those delays eventually led to the JWST project costing $10 billion.

NASA's decision to name its most advanced space telescope ever after former agency administrator James Webb has also been a source of controversy. Before Webb oversaw the Mercury, Gemini and early Apollo programs at NASA, he worked at the US State Department during a time when the agency fired hundreds of gay and lesbian personnel. In September, NASA said it would not change the name of the JWST.

The image Biden shared today is only the first of a handful of photos NASA plans to share this week from the JWST. The rest of the initial slate will arrive tomorrow morning at 9:45PM ET when NASA hosts a press conference with Webb leadership. Live coverage of the event starts at 10:30AM ET on NASA TV, YouTube, Twitter and Twitch.