This image shows the galaxy group “Stephan’s Quintet,” 40 million light-years from Earth. The new images illuminate the gravitational pull among the galaxies and “outflow” from a black hole. (all images produced by NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute; via Webb Space Telescope)

In a long-anticipated press conference this morning, July 12, NASA released the first images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, the sharpest and most detailed infrared photographs ever captured of space. The $10 billion technology is three times sharper and 100 times more sensitive than the Hubble Telescope, which launched 32 years ago in 1990.

The James Webb Space Telescope, inaugurated on Christmas Day of 2021, is a collaboration between NASA and the European and Canadian space agencies. Below are the first awe-inspiring images released so far; this article will be updated as additional photographs are made available.

A galaxy cluster 4.6 billion light-years away

One photograph shows an area of sky that would be the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length to a person standing on Earth. The image depicts a galaxy cluster 4.6 billion light-years away, showing us what this portion of the universe looked like back then.

A nebula captured in near-infrared light (left) and mid-infrared light (right)
The Southern Ring Nebula

A momentous portrait of the Southern Ring Nebula — captured in near-infrared light in one photograph and mid-infrared light in another — shows a star that was at one point similar to our Sun. The star has now stopped creating energy through nuclear fusion, and over thousands of years, has shed at least eight layers of gas and dust. Stars locked in orbit disrupt the normal shedding of gas and dust and result in the asymmetrical pattern seen in the images.

A “stellar nursery” with young stars

One of the most striking images released so far shows the Carina Nebula, a “stellar nursery” 7,600 light-years away. Each glittering speck is a young star. The infrared photograph displays a region called the Cosmic Cliffs and depicts a massive space — some of the “mountains” are seven light-years high.

On social media, some users have highlighted the differences between the images from the Hubble space telescope and those taken by the new Webb telescope. In one Tweet, @liberato_gio places two similar images side by side, showing the disparity in detail between the two photographs.

“It’s astounding,” US President Joe Biden said during a press conference yesterday, July 11, referring to “the oldest documented light in the history of the universe — from over 13 billion — let me say it again — over 13 billion years ago.”

This article will be updated as photographs are made available, below.

Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies
A star-forming region in the Carina Nebula

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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