Pin It
James Webb Space Telescope image of the Carina Nebula
James Webb Space Telescope image of the Carina NebulaCourtesy of NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Why NASA’s amazing new images are such a big deal

Photos from the James Webb Space Telescope will shed light on the beginnings of the universe, and could help the hunt for extraterrestrial life

On Christmas Day, 2021, NASA launched the most powerful telescope ever sent into into space. Named the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the project promised the deepest and clearest infrared images of distant galaxies to date, looking back in time to help unravel mysteries about the origins of the universe.

Now, after a journey of almost a million miles from Earth, and months spent preparing to gather data from the far reaches of the cosmos, the telescope has finally started beaming full-colour images back to NASA. The first, unveiled by Joe Biden at the White House yesterday (July 11), takes us deeper into space than ever before, showing stars and galaxies as they appeared 13 billion years ago.

Since then, a steady stream of awe-inspiring images have followed, courtesy of the “transformational” NASA mission. These photos capture cosmic phenomena on a never-before-seen scale: huge shockwaves created by colliding galaxies, the death throes of dying stars, and the “cosmic cliffs” of the Carina Nebula.

Of course, the purpose of the JWST isn’t just to blow our minds: after the long wait to get the telescope up and running, these images are finally of a high enough quality and resolution to use for scientific analysis, as well. NASA’s researchers say that they will be instrumental in understanding the universe as it exists today, as well as its ancient beginnings.

Below, we explain just how important the James Webb Space Telescope is set to be for our understanding of the universe, the risky procedure of getting it up into orbit, and how it might help us to identify habitable worlds beyond our galaxy.


The James Webb Space Telescope cost $10 billion, and when scientists launched it late last year, they weren’t sure that it would even arrive safely at its destination: the second Lagrange point (or L2, a spot 1.5 million kilometres behind Earth, as viewed from the Sun), where forces balance out to keep it securely in orbit. First, it had to safely leave the planet onboard a rocket, and then unfold its 6.5-metre primary mirror, or the “eye” through which it sees the universe. Then, everything else had to go right, keeping it carefully temperature controlled, out of light, and pointing in the right direction.

Luckily, the many intricate stages of the launch went to plan – an achievement that’s almost as wildly impressive as the pictures themselves. “People were speechless, and there were emotions, because we immediately could see how amazing this observatory would be – the detail, the sharpness, the depth,” Webb project scientist Klaus Pontopiddan tells the BBC of the mission’s success. “When we saw the first colour images we knew we had a winner.”


The beginning of the universe it still, broadly speaking, a complete mystery. The James Webb Space Telescope is so powerful, however, that it can see back through time to observe the galaxy in its infancy – even further than its predecessor, the Hubble Telescope – allowing scientists to look at the formation of the earliest galaxies.

Non-infrared missions have seen even further back, to a time before galaxies had even formed. However, this new, infrared imaging will give us an unprecedented understanding of how galaxies actually evolved and what elements they contained, and by extension will help answer questions about how galaxies like our own, the Milky Way, took shape.


Besides training its lens on galaxies at the dawn of time, the JWST will help reveal the elements that are present in the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system. Due to their size, rocky planets that could potentially host life have been difficult to identify and analyse using existing telescopes, but JWST’s remote position in space and unprecedented clarity is set to change that.

By analysing the wavelengths of light captured by the telescope as planets pass in front of stars, scientists will even be able to study the chemical compositions of distant worlds, potentially uncovering planets where the conditions could support alien life. Or future human life, if like certain billionaires you believe space colonies are the way forward.


The first image from the JWST to be revealed to the public was appropriately named Webb’s First Deep Field. Trained on galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, it shows thousands of galaxies, some of them the faintest objects ever observed in infrared. These star systems seem to go on forever, fading away into the blackness of space. 

To put what we’re seeing into context, however, NASA says that every single one of the galaxies in this image fit into a speck of sky the size of a grain of sand, held up at arm’s length. Which is… insane. Even if the James Webb Telescope does allow us to observe more of space than ever before, in reality it’s just the beginning.