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President Biden reveals the James Webb Space Telescope’s “poetic” first image of the universe


“This is a new window into the history of our universe,” President Biden said. “Today, we saw the first light coming in through that window.”

Launched on Christmas Day 2021, the $10 billion JWST is the most advanced space telescope ever built. The 21-foot-wide infrared telescope, developed in collaboration with Europe and Canada, is equipped with 18 gold-coated hexagonal mirrors and is able to view the entire universe farther and more accurately than any other instrument, even far more than Hubble.

Engineers have been working tirelessly over the past few months to get the machine, which is protected from the sun by a massive sunshade the size of a tennis court, to function properly. The telescope, located 1.5 kilometers from Earth’s lunar orbit, is now ready. “You’re pinching yourself all the time,” said Mark McCollins, senior adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency. “It was unexpectedly good.”

The photo released by President Biden today is the first of four to be released this week, along with two spectacular nebulae and a group of compact galaxies. The fifth observation, a preliminary study of planetary atmospheres in another solar system, will also be published.

“It’s like putting on glasses for the first time,” said astronomer Wendy Friedman of the University of Chicago. Described by astronomer Paul Byrne of Washington University in St. Louis as “poetic,” the image reveals a vast array of galaxies inhabited by stars and planets throughout the universe.

These test images are a small subset of telescopes operated by NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Scheduled scientific observations for the first year of JWST include detailed studies of exoplanets, surveys of distant galaxies, and expeditions deep into the sky and ancient times, toward the Big Bang itself.

“This observatory is seeing things we’ve never seen before,” said Michael Menzel, principal mission systems engineer at JWST at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, “and it’s just a files.”

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