NASA Unveils Sharpest-Ever Infrared Image of Deep Space

NASA has begun sharing the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope.

The Hubble Space Telescope has offered decades of incredible images since it launched in 1990. Now, a new telescope will further our understanding of the cosmos and stun the Earth-bound with an even deeper look into the universe.

The James Webb Space Telescope launched in December 2021. It took more than six months of travel, calibration, and testing before NASA was ready (and able) to unveil the JWST's first deep look into space. It does not disappoint. The image, debuted by President Joe Biden on July 11, is the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe we've ever seen.

Webb's First Deep Field showcases galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. NASA describes the image as "overflowing with detail." It includes thousands of galaxies and "the faintest objects ever observed in infrared," per NASA. This immaculate image "covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm's length by someone on the ground." That starts to put the remarkable possibilities for discovery into perspective. 

Though, like any image of the cosmos, it's not nearly as simple as snapping a picture on your phone. What we get is a composite of images made at different wavelengths, taking a total of 12.5 hours. It goes beyond the deepest fields of view taken by Hubble, which themselves took weeks to create, according to NASA.

Objects that might have been faint or not visible previously, can be seen sharply in this first image. That's partly because the James Webb Space Telescope is a cold telescope capable of imaging light from .6 microns to 5 microns, a greater range than Hubble's near-infrared capabilities, Eric Smith, James Webb Space Telescope Scientist and Astrophysics Division Chief Scientist at NASA Headquarters, tells Thrillist. 

The image looks back in time, in a manner of speaking, to reveal SMACS0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago due to the incredible distance from Earth at which it sits. "The combined mass of this galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying much more distant galaxies behind it," NASA's announcement explains. 

The project is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) that has taken decades to bear fruit. There has been controversy around the name and a budget that ballooned to, well, astronomic proportions. Nonetheless, it's a Herculean feat to send a mirror that gathers infrared light and spans more than 21 feet across into space. 

This is just the first of many images that the JWST, a collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and Canadian Space Agency (CSA), will take over the years to come. In fact, NASA will release even more images on July 12. 

Ready to go stargazing?

Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. If you're just getting started, check out our guide to astronomy for beginners or easy stargazing road trips from big US cities.

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow Dustin on Twitter.