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By Carlos Gamino

In mid-July 2022, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released the first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, a high-powered, space-based telescope that’s about a million miles from Earth right now. The agency launched the telescope in December 2021 from French Guiana, and it’ll hang out in its current position (give or take a few miles) for at least five years. It could – like the Opportunity Mars Rover – outlive expectations, lasting ten years or more, but only if it has enough fuel to maintain its orbit and it’s able to dodge the effects of space’s harsh environment.

How is the Webb Telescope Different From the Hubble Telescope?

The Webb Telescope (just Webb for short) is different from the Hubble. In addition to being technologically superior, it’s a lot farther out in space. The Hubble is in low-Earth orbit, just 375 miles from Earth (that’s about the distance from Milwaukee to Detroit if you drive around Lake Michigan). Because of Webb’s distance from Earth, it’s not serviceable; NASA doesn’t have any plans to send manned missions out there during its planned lifespan.

Webb can see a lot farther than the Hubble Telescope can, too. Right now, it’s looking at what happened in the universe shortly after the Big Bang – and that’s when the first stars and galaxies began to form. That’s why scientists have found the images so riveting; it can take them back to “explore every phase of cosmic history.”

The other – and most significant – difference between Webb and the Hubble is that the Webb Telescope can pick up infrared light. The Hubble Telescope can do that, too, but only to a small extent. That means scientists can observe extremely faint objects that they just couldn’t pick up with the Hubble.

What About Webb’s First Images?

The first images NASA released depict thousands of galaxies across the universe. Some of these galaxies formed around 13.2 billion years ago.

But perhaps what’s most fascinating about the images is that they’re incredibly tiny. The telescope uses gravitational lensing, which occurs when a massive object magnifies or distorts the light of objects behind it. According to NASA, the gravitational field of a huge galaxy cluster can bend light rays from more distant galaxies (just like a camera lens bends light to create a picture). As a result, the Webb images you see come from a picture that’s about as small as a grain of sand held at arm’s length – and they only depict a miniscule fraction of the vastness of space.

What Do You Think About the Webb Telescope’s Images?

Have you checked out the images from the James Webb Space Telescope? What did you think of them – were you impressed, or are you waiting for NASA to do another photo dump? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – so please feel free to share them on my Facebook page or on my Twitter feed.

Carlos Gamino