First look: Biden, NASA release first James Webb Space Telescope image

WASHINGTON — Americans received their first high-definition glimpses into the universe’s distant past Monday when President Joe Biden and NASA made public the first image captured by the groundbreaking James Webb Space Telescope.

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“This symbolizes the relentless spirit of American ingenuity,” Biden said during a press briefing just before 6:30 p.m. Monday.

Biden also said that the telescope’s images will “remind Americans” that “we can do big things” and “nothing is beyond our capacity.”

Meanwhile, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson provided context about the scope of Monday’s image reveal.

“Mr. President, if you held a grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm’s length, that is the part of the universe that you’re seeing,” Nelson said during the briefing, explaining that the image released shows “galaxies that are shining around other galaxies, whose light has been bent, and you’re seeing just a small, little portion of the universe.”

Nelson also noted that viewing the single image allows viewers to look back more than 13 billion years, “almost to the beginning” of the cosmos, and the James Webb Telescope will only continue to delve further into the universe’s formation.

Regarding planets observed by the new instrument, Nelson explained that NASA “can determine with this telescope ... if those planets are habitable” based on “their chemical composition” and their atmospheres.

Meanwhile, Vice President Kamala Harris, who serves as chairperson of the National Space Council, called the space telescope “one of humanity’s greatest engineering achievements” and said its images will allow all people to “look to the sky with new understanding.”

“And now, we enter a new phase of scientific discovery.” Harris added, noting that humankind can now look “deeper into space than ever before and in stunning clarity.”

Biden’s presentation early Monday evening served as a teaser to NASA’s planned Tuesday release of five targets that the $10 billion space telescope has been documenting for nearly six months.

According to The New York Times, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for space science, described the image released Monday as the deepest view yet into the past of our cosmos.

The revolutionary telescope entered orbit – roughly 1 million miles from Earth – in late January, one month after its Christmas Day 2021 launch.

On Friday, NASA itemized five subjects that Webb recorded, and those images will all be released Tuesday, but Biden’s sneak peek focused exclusively on “deep field” image SMACS 0723, a patch of sky visible from Earth’s Southern Hemisphere that includes an enormous “cluster of galaxies about four billion light-years from here that astronomers use as a kind of cosmic telescope,” the Times reported.

According to the newspaper, the cluster’s massive gravitation field “acts as a lens, warping and magnifying the light from galaxies behind it that would otherwise be too faint and faraway to see.”

The Webb telescope is seven times more sensitive than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, and three times its size, according to the Times. Specifically, the instrument is designed to see further into the past than Hubble, allowing scientists to study the first stars and galaxies when the universe began.

The images to be released Tuesday include a view of a giant gaseous planet outside our solar system, two images of a nebula where stars are born and die in spectacular beauty and an update of a classic image of five tightly clustered galaxies that dance around each other.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.