Webb Space Image Just 'Tiny Fraction' of What Telescope Is Capable Of

An astronomy expert has said the recent image released by the James Webb Space Telescope represents a mere fraction of what the telescope is capable of.

On Monday, the scientific community and the public were, at long last, treated to the first proper images taken by NASA's new state-of-the-art space telescope.

Launched last December, Webb has been hailed by scientists as ushering in a new era of astronomy by pushing the boundaries of how far into the universe we can see.

However, astronomers and the public had to wait months for the telescope to travel to its desired point in space and then calibrate itself before its first proper images were released.

Webb's First Deep Field
Webb's First Deep Field image, released by NASA on July 11, 2022. NASA has called it the deepest infrared image of the universe yet. NASA/ESA/CSA/STScl

The wait was finally over on Monday, when NASA released what it called Webb's First Deep Field—an image of a distant cluster of galaxies known as SMACS 0723 over 5 billion light-years away.

With this first image, Webb has already set a strong precedent. NASA says it represents the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe ever taken—and Webb is only just getting started.

"The image released tonight is only a tiny fraction of what we'll get," Stephen Wilkins, a reader in astronomy in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex in the U.K., told Newsweek on Monday. "In fact, just over next week, we are already expecting lots more similar data."

Indeed, while Webb's First Deep Field shows countless galaxies scattered across a section of the universe that is unfathomably large, the image shows a very small portion of the night sky. In NASA's words, the image "covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm's length by someone on the ground."

In addition, the image took Webb just 12.5 hours to capture. Comparable images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope—which could not peer as far away as Webb—took weeks.

We can also expect more images from Webb soon, since Monday's release represented just one part of a suite of images that is due to be released on Tuesday.

After that, Webb will continue to peer into the cosmos, helping scientists answer all sorts of questions on topics such as black hole formation and how different early stars were from newer ones like the sun.

"Probably one of the most exciting observations are spectroscopy," said Wilkins. "In the context of distant galaxies, this allows us to really measure what chemical elements they contain. This is important because we know the very first galaxies formed from the 'pristine' material—mostly hydrogen and helium—left over after the Big Bang. With Webb, we'll be able to track the creation of elements like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon across all of cosmic history."