James Webb Space Telescope 1st photos will include 'deepest image of our universe'

The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to see the first stars and galaxies that emerged in the universe after the Big Bang.
The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to see the first stars and galaxies that emerged in the universe after the Big Bang. (Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

We finally have hints of what the first operational images will be from NASA's deep-space observatory.

Among the first pictures coming in from the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope will be "the deepest image of our universe that has ever been taken," according to NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

While not specifying which early-universe objects Webb will focus upon, nor how old these targets are, Nelson suggested the image will show the earliest objects yet seen. "This is farther than humanity has ever looked before, and we're only beginning to understand what Webb can and will do," he added.

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Webb's new image may supersede the Hubble Space Telescope's series of deep image fields showing galaxies in our universe formed as little as a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, which took place roughly 13.7 billion years ago.

Nelson was speaking at a media event at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which manages Webb operations. NASA used the media event to discuss Webb's forthcoming operational image release July 12 along with the range of science the observatory will conduct early in its tenure, including solar system objects, exoplanets, the early universe and a range of targets in between.

Another of the images coming that day will be Webb's first spectrum of an exoplanet, according to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate, who spoke at the same event. Such spectra, which measure the amount of light emitted at certain wavelengths, typically provide hints of a planet's chemistry, which point to its formation history. 

A comparison of views of the same part of the sky as seen by NASA's retired Spitzer Space Telescope and the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (left), NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI (right))

"We'll look at these worlds out there that keep us awake at night, as we look into the starry sky and wonder ... is there life elsewhere?" Zurbuchen said of the milestone. (Webb, however, is optimized to look at large gas giant planets and will likely not be able to get too much information from rocky worlds that might host life as we know it, based on past information from the consortium.)

NASA's first science-quality images from the observatory will be released July 12 at 10:30 a.m. EDT (1430 GMT) and will be webcast live here at Space.com along with NASA's website and social media channels. (Certain Webb partners have also committed to events or webcasts, like the Canadian Space Agency.)

Webb is completing checkouts of its four scientific instruments for operation after launching into space Dec. 25, 2021. 

You can follow along with the instruments' "check-off" list on the "Where is Webb" NASA webpage. The full list of Webb's first cycle of observations is available at this website from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which runs Webb operations.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace