Far Out: NASA Has Just Unveiled the Deepest and Sharpest View of the Cosmos That's Ever Been Seen

The spectacular infrared picture, taken with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, shows a galaxy cluster as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago.
Sarah Ward
Published on July 12, 2022

Sometimes, when you're having an average day, you're caught up in your usual daily dramas or you're simply tired, it can be easy to forget that we're all just zooming around the universe on a floating blue ball. It can escape your mind that our pale blue dot is a mere tiny speck in the heavens, too — but, today, Tuesday, July 12 Down Under, in comes NASA with a massive reminder.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the space science observatory charged with peering deeply into our solar system and well beyond, has been taking images of what it sees — and the first such picture has just been revealed. The telescope is an international program led by NASA with the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency, with US President Joe Biden doing the honours in unveiling the deepest and sharpest view of the universe that's ever been captured.

How deep is deep? NASA Administrator Bill Nelson describes the snapshot of the cosmos seen in Webb's first image — taken by its near-infrared camera (NIRCam) — as covering "a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm's length. It's just a tiny sliver of the vast universe".

Known as Webb's First Deep Field, the image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared a whopping 4.6 billion years ago, and covers thousands of galaxies, including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared. NASA explains that "the combined mass of this galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying much more distant galaxies behind it". The NIRCam has then brought those galaxies into sharp focus, revealing faint structures that've never been seen before, such as star clusters.

It's a detailed snap, unsurprisingly. It's also awe-inspiring and more than a little mind-blowing. The NIRCam shot is a composite, compiled from images at different wavelengths over 12.5 hours — at depths at infrared wavelengths even beyond the Hubble Space Telescope's deepest fields, which took weeks.

This image is part of the Webb telescope's effort to unfold the infrared universe — and it's just the first of many. The full set will be revealed on 12.30am AEST on Wednesday, July 13 Australian time (2.30am in New Zealand), complete with spectroscopic data.

If you're keen to watch, it'll be livestreamed via NASA, although expect the results to be all over the internet tomorrow morning anyway if you'll still be asleep.

For more information about the James Webb Space Telescope, head to the NASA and James Web Space Telescope websites.

Top image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI.

Published on July 12, 2022 by Sarah Ward
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