News of the James Webb Telescope’s monumental discovery erupted through headlines on Monday as NASA announced its magnificent progress while on its mission of deep space exploration. On Tuesday the 12th of July, four stunning and never-before-seen images of the universe as we know it were published, giving our most intricately detailed image of what really lies beyond our cosy little solar system.  

Way back when, as the Canadian, European and American space agencies joined together in the 1990s, the idea of the James Webb Telescope was born. The aim of creating the James Webb telescope was to “explore every phase of cosmic history”. After 30 years of development, and 10 million dollars’ expenditure, the telescope finally launched from French Guiana into space to explore the unknown and provide a deeper answer to our never ending question of “what’s next?”. Fast forward to today, and the ‘Next Generation Telescope’ proves itself by producing stellar images at the astonishing distance of almost 1.61 million kilometres from Earth.  

The galaxy cluster ‘SMACS 0723’ was the first among the telescope’s accomplishments to be presented by US President Joe Biden on Monday the 11th of July, serving as somewhat of a “taster” for what was to come on the following day. With the use of gravitational lensing – a method of employing the gravitational forces of galaxy clusters to magnify more distant galaxies behind them – the telescope provides a a beautifully detailed deep-field view of what were previously faint galaxies as they were over 13 billion years ago.

Figure 1 – The Galaxy Cluster SMACS 0723. Photograph: NASA/Reuters

  Another fascinating image released captured Carina Nebula, a swirl of gas clouds and dust almost 7,600 light-years away from Earth. Coined as a “stellar nursery”, the image of the nebula is so jam-packed with intricate detail, that scientists could point out cavities, bubbles and jets speeding out of the new-born stars observed, along with a multitude of stars never even seen before.

Figure 2 – The Carina Nebula. Photograph: NASA/Getty Images

  Apart from enabling a better view of distant objects within our universe, the Webb Telescope also gives insight into the structure and compositions of such observations. This feature is showcased through the examination of the giant, sweltering exoplanet ‘WASP-96 b’. Because of the miraculous telescope, the exoplanet was observed to have a similar mass to that of Saturn, albeit with an uncommonly distinct sodium signature within its spectral composition. Scientists also discerned a strong water signature in the exoplanet’s atmosphere, along with evidence of clouds and haze, yet the planet’s high surface temperature makes it currently impossible to support the presence of liquid water. Such a discovery further entertains the possibility of life beyond what we understand within our universe; be it in the past, present, or future.

Figure 3 – Atmospheric Composition of WASP-96 b. Photograph: NASA/Getty Images

  The ‘Southern Ring Nebula’ was also among the captured images revealed on Tuesday, with a comparison of the telescope’s near-infrared and mid-infrared capabilities being exhibited to flaunt the vast gas clouds sweeping out from a dying star 2,000 light-years away from Earth. The elaborate portrait, quite similar to artistic impressions of space, astonished scientists as a mysterious streak presented itself within the images. Upon further inspection, said streak was proven to be a side-on view of a galaxy further away.

Figure 4 – Comparison of Southern Ring Nebula Observations. Photograph: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/AP

  ‘Stephan’s Quintet’ was the last image to be exposed by NASA. The thrilling scene displays a close knit cluster of five galaxies surrounded by a flurry of dazzling stars and galaxies. What initially surprised researchers however, was the discovery of an active blackhole within the image, which of course cannot be physically seen, but is uncovered by the material being swallowed by the cosmic beast.

Figure 5 – Stephan’s Quintet. Photograph: NASA/Getty Images

  And so, after a gruelling process of planning and building and funding, our beloved James Webb Telescope proved itself well deserving of sharing the name of the iconic NASA official who administrated the moon landing era. From the deployment of its tennis-court sized sunshield to the alignment of its 18 gold-plated mirrors, the astonishing feat relentlessly reminds us of our place in the universe, and the unfathomable possibilities that lay beyond it.