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NASA releases the first high-resolution color images from the largest space telescope ever built

New images from the James Webb Space Telescope show the reaches of the universe in the most stunning detail ever captured.

The high-resolution color photos released Tuesday from NASA’s largest and most sophisticated telescope ever built show the universe in a way astronomers haven’t seen it before. The images show galaxies more than 4.6 billion years old.

Harvard University astronomy professor Alyssa Goodman and her colleagues have been waiting a long time for this moment. The images show stars and galaxies at a wide array of distances, from within the Milky Way to galaxies far, far away. The tiny smudges in the images represent the farthest away galaxies — which formed close to the beginning of the universe, Goodman says.

“When you look out deep, deep into the universe, you are looking back in time because it took the light such a long time to get here,” Goodman says. “It’s like this mishmash of galaxies of all different ages. It’s really hard to appreciate it all at once.”

Much of Goodman’s work compares numerical simulations of physics in the universe against scientific observations. She’s worked with computer simulations like this for years — but now, she can work with real images.

“You kind of go, ‘oh, my gosh, we actually understand physics,’” she says. “In comparing the detailed calculations in these numerical simulations with the images, questions about the distribution of dark matter and the nature of dark energy and all of that can actually be gleaned from the detailed analysis of the colors and the shapes in those images. And that’ll take years.”

The images show the colorful Carina Nebula, where stars are born more than 7,000 light-years away. Look closely at the light and dark patches at the edges where the brown-orange center merges into the blue background. The structures in the middle of the image form when light strong enough to transform matter shapes gas, Goodman says.

These details mean a lot: Astronomers can use them to figure out the type of star.

“We’ll be having a great time in the astronomy world,” she says.

See more images here.

 Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A detailed image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScl)
A detailed image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScl)