NASA unveils first image from James Webb Space Telescope

NASA’s revolutionary, long-delayed $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope has produced its first full-color image, and it’s a doozy: a glimpse deep into space and back in time, capturing the faint light of galaxies forming in the infancy of the cosmos.

The image, revealed Monday in a White House ceremony by President Biden and top NASA officials, shows a cluster of galaxies, called SMACS 0723, that functions as a massive lens, magnifying the extremely faint and cosmically distant objects behind it.

“We’re looking back more than 13 billion years,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at the White House event. “Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, and that light that you are seeing from one of those little specks, has been traveling for over 13 billion years.”

He added: “And by the way, we’re going back further. Because this is just the first image. … We’re going back almost to the beginning.”

The new image is what is known as a “deep field” observation, with the telescope staring at what NASA called a “patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.”

Outer space when viewed like this looks incredibly crowded — not so very spacious at all. What the Webb sees through this pinhole examination of the cosmic darkness is a hornet’s nest of brilliant but enigmatic objects in many colors.

A smattering of stars have parked themselves in the foreground, but everything else is a galaxy — a vast agglomeration of stars, rendered into a small splash of light by the immense distances involved.

Strikingly, the lensing effect has distorted some of the distant galaxies in the background, making them appear stretched and manipulated, as if made of Play-Doh.

“It’s astounding,” Biden said, expressing awe at the sight of “the oldest documented light in the history of the universe — from over 13 billion — let me say it again — over 13 billion years ago.”

The White House described the image as the “highest-resolution images of the infrared universe ever captured.” The Webb is designed to observe in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, gathering light at wavelengths inaccessible to the acclaimed Hubble telescope.

The White House event was a preview of a more comprehensive reveal of images during a news conference scheduled for Tuesday morning at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.