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New Delhi: “A picture is worth a thousand worlds,” Google said on Tuesday (July 12, 2022) as it celebrated the deepest infrared photo of the universe ever taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope with a special Doodle. The American space agency on Tuesday released the first full-color, high-resolution pictures from the largest, most powerful observatory ever launched to space, designed to peer farther than before with greater clarity to the dawn of the universe.

The debut photos, which took weeks to render from raw telescope data, were selected by NASA to show off James Webb Space Telescope’s capabilities and foreshadow science missions ahead.

Nearly two decades in the making, the $9 billion infrared telescope was launched on December 25, 2021, and reached its destination in solar orbit nearly 1 million miles from Earth a month later. With Webb finely tuned after months spent remotely aligning its mirrors and calibrating its instruments, scientists will embark on a competitively selected agenda exploring the evolution of galaxies, the life cycle of stars, atmospheres of distant exoplanets, and moons of our outer solar system.

The crowning debut image, previewed on Monday by US President Biden but displayed with greater fanfare on Tuesday, was a “deep field” photo of a distant galaxy cluster, SMACS 0723, revealing the most detailed glimpse of the early universe recorded to date.

James Webb Space Telescope shows galaxies of SMACS 0723

The SMACS 0723 image below shows a 4.6 billion-year-old galaxy cluster whose combined mass acts as a “gravitational lens,” distorting space to greatly magnify the light coming from more distant galaxies behind it. One of the older galaxies appearing in the “background” of the photo – a composite of images of different wavelengths of light – dates back about 13.1 billion years.

Underscoring the vastness of the universe, the thousands of galaxies appearing in the SMACS 0723 image appear in a tiny patch of sky roughly the size of a sand grain held at arm`s length by someone standing on Earth.

At least one faint galaxy measured among the thousands in the image is nearly 95% as old as the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set the expansion of the known universe in motion some 13.8 billion years ago, NASA said.

Among the four other Webb subjects getting their closeups on Tuesday were two enormous clouds of gas and dust blasted into space by stellar explosions to form incubators for new stars – the Carina Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, each thousands of light years away from Earth.

James Webb Space Telescope’s image of Carina Nebula

 The new Carina Nebula photos expose contours of its massive clouds never seen before.

Carina Nebula

James Webb Space Telescope’s image of Southern Ring Nebula

The image of the Southern Ring Nebula below shows the dying stellar object at its center was a binary pair of stars closely orbiting one another.

James Webb Space Telescope's image of Southern Ring Nebula

James Webb Space Telescope’s image of Stephan’s Quintet

The collection also included fresh images of another galaxy cluster known as Stephan’s Quintet, first discovered in 1877, which encompasses several galaxies NASA described as “locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters.”

Stephan's Quintet

Apart from the imagery, NASA presented Webb’s first spectrographic analysis of a Jupiter-sized exoplanet more than 1,100 light years away – revealing the molecular signatures of filtered light passing through its atmosphere, including the presence of water vapor. Scientists have raised the possibility of eventually detecting water on the surface of smaller, rockier Earth-like exoplanets in the future.

James Webb Space Telescope is 100 times more sensitive than Hubble Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope, which is built to view its subjects chiefly in the infrared spectrum, is about 100 times more sensitive than its 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which operates mainly at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths. The much larger light-collecting surface of Webb’s primary mirror – an array of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal – enables it to observe objects at greater distances, thus further back in time, than any other telescope. Its infrared optics allow Webb to detect a wider range of celestial objects and see through clouds of dust and gas that obscure light in the visible spectrum.

All five of Webb`s introductory targets were previously known to scientists, but NASA officials said Webb`s early imagery proved it works as designed, better than expected, while literally capturing its subjects in an entirely new light.

The Webb telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies.

(With inputs from agencies. Picture credits: NASA)

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