It's the highest-resolution infrared image ever captured. The new picture is a "deep field" image — a long-exposure observation of a region of the sky, which allows the telescope to capture the light of extremely faint, distant objects.
Because it takes time for light to travel, some of the light in the new image is more than 13 billion years old. That's less than 1 billion years after the Big Bang. The telescope has successfully looked back in time.
"Today's a historic day," said President Joe Biden, as he waited to see the image in a White House briefing on Monday evening. "These images are going to remind the world that America can do big things and remind the American people, especially our children, that there's nothing beyond our capacity. We can see possibilities no one has ever seen before. We can go places no one has ever gone before."
If you held a grain of sand at arm's length, that would represent the speck of universe you see in this image, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told Biden in the briefing. Nelson added that the image is just the first: "We're going back to about 13 and a half billion years. Since we know the universe is 13.8 billion years old, we're going back almost to the beginning. "
For this deep field, Webb pointed its powerful infrared camera to SMACS 0723, a massive group of galaxy clusters that act as a magnifying glass for the objects behind them. The streaks of light are galaxies stretched out by the powerful gravitational pull of SMACS 0723, a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. The image took less than a day to capture, according to NASA.
This is just an early peek at a collection of full-color images from the fledgling telescope. NASA plans to release the rest on Tuesday, one by one, starting at 10:30 a.m. ET.
They'll include images of stellar nurseries known as nebula and the spectra, which contains information on the chemical composition, of an atmosphere on a faraway planet.
With these new pictures, NASA is finally beginning to reap the rewards of two decades and $10 billion spent building the giant space observatory. The last seven months have been a grueling test of that investment.
After a nail-biting launch on Christmas Day, the new telescope fell into orbit around the sun, 1 million miles from Earth, and meticulously executed a delicate unfolding process with 344 opportunities for failure. Despite engineers' fears, the nearly 7-ton observatory made it through the ordeal unscathed, bringing all its scientific instruments online.
In the coming years, astronomers expect JWST to fill a mysterious gap in the historical record of our universe — the first 400 million years after the Big Bang — and to identify distant worlds that could host alien life.
To accomplish those cosmic feats, engineers built JWST six times larger and 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been NASA's prime orbiting observatory since it launched in 1990.
Hubble's first image, below, was a big deal when it was released 32 years ago. The new JWST picture reflects three decades of technological progress.
"This telescope is one of humanity's great engineering achievements," Vice President Kamala Harris said on Monday. "From the beginning of history, humans have looked up to the night sky with wonder, and thanks to dedicated people who have been working for decades in engineering and on scientific marvels, we can look to the sky with new understanding."
The new space observatory should be able to see much further into the cosmos, in much greater detail, than Hubble ever could.