Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

The ultimate guide to the James Webb Space Telescope

Updated Dec 21st, 2023 4:26PM EST
James Webb telescope
Image: Vadimsadovski / Adobe

If you buy through a BGR link, we may earn an affiliate commission, helping support our expert product labs.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the largest telescope in space. As an infrared space observatory, the telescope was designed to peer deep into the early universe, where it can see through vast fields of dust and matter.

Since the telescope’s launch in 2021, it has carried on a very storied legacy. Here is everything you need to know to follow James Webb’s journey so far.

Setting up

The James Webb Space Telescope launched from the European Space Agency’s Kourou launch site in French Guiana on December 25, 2021. In early January, NASA Shared one of the last videos of Webb that we’ll ever see. After almost a month of travel, the powerful James Webb reached its final destination, more than a million miles away from Earth.

From late January to July, NASA continued to provide updates on James Webb’s progress. On March 16, NASA shared Webb’s first in-focus image, following up with news on April 28 that Webb was fully aligned and ready to get to work. In May, we finally got a look at another image captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, detailing the quality of Webb’s images.

It was around this time that NASA officials fully realized that we were working with a telescope that was going to change our understanding of the universe completely, with NASA and the ESA releasing news of some of the possible studies that Webb would undergo, including observations of two Super-Earths found within our galaxy.

Webb takes a hit

James Webb damage to mirror from micrometeoroid hit
Images comparing measurements from James Webb mirrors. Right shows mirror alignment after the micrometeroid hit. Image source: NASA / ESA / CSA

In June, NASA revealed when we’d see the first full in-color images from James Webb. Shortly after announcing that those images would release in July, though, dire news was shared – a micrometeoroid had hit Webb. NASA wasn’t sure what this meant for the James Webb Space Telescope then, but we later learned that Webb suffered an uncorrectable change to one of its mirrors.

Thankfully, that hit hasn’t affected the James Webb Space Telescope in completing its duties, and in July, NASA shared more details about Webb’s first targets.

James Webb’s first images

With NASA set to reveal Webb’s first images on July 12, the space agency revealed the targets of those first crucial observations on July 10. Those targets would include the Carina Nebula, WASP-96b, the Southern Ring Nebula, Stephan’s Quintet, and a section of space known as SMACS 0723.

James Webb image of Carina Nebula
An image of the Carina Nebula captured by the James Webb in its very first scientific observations. Image source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

When the first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope were released, though, they were far greater than anyone had expected. From there, Webb’s observations only continued to trickle out, with Webb detecting water on an exoplanet. This development proved that the telescope was more powerful than anything scientists had ever worked with.

Observing Jupiter and a supernova

But the discoveries and observations made by the James Webb Space Telescope don’t stop with those first images of the early universe. Since those first images were released in July, NASA and the ESA have revealed other images. And members of the astronomy community have even revealed their own images, composited from the data that Webb has captured.

In mid-July, Webb images of Jupiter began to circulate, showcasing some of the first bits of data that the James Webb Space Telescope had captured. Around this same time, the space telescope also captured observations of its first supernova, offering a brief glimpse at part of the universe the telescope wasn’t even designed to look for.

The James Webb Space Telescope sees an Einstein Ring

Cartwheel galaxy captured by Webb image
Webb’s capture of the Cartwheel Galaxy. Image source: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

From there, Webb’s observations and images have only continued to wow the minds of the space community for the past few months. August brought a dazzling photo of the Cartwheel Galaxy and Webb’s discovery of the most distant galaxy known to man. The James Webb space telescope also captured an image of two galaxies smashing together, a common but often unobserved galactic event.

But, capturing the full scale of what the James Webb Space Telescope is capable of and showcasing it for all to see has been difficult, even with the beautiful images it has delivered. That’s why the ESA set up a video back in mid-August detailing Webb’s insane reach into the universe.

One thing that has made the James Webb Space Telescope so endearing to astronomers is how openly available it is to them. All of the data that Webb has captured has been shared with the community, allowing astronomers of all types and renown to siphon through the terabytes of observations Webb has had.

In August, the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Study looked at Webb’s data, creating the largest Webb image at the time. That was shortly followed up by Webb’s image of the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy, 56 million light-years away from our planet.

great barred spiral galaxy
The Great Barred Spiral Galaxy as captured by the James Webb space telescope Image source: u/SpaceGuy44 / STScI

More photos of Jupiter captured by the James Webb Space Telescope surfaced in August, showing dazzling auroras along the planet’s surface. Around that same time, scientists completed a spectrum on an exoplanet and detected carbon dioxide for the first time outside our solar system.

But August’s observations didn’t stop there. Near the end of the month, NASA shared a beautiful image of an Einstein Ring located 12 billion light-years from Earth, showcasing the clarity with which the James Webb Space Telescope can capture distant phenomena, even when they’re harder to see.

 The space telescope ended August off with an image of the Phantom Galaxy, a beautiful spiral-armed galaxy 32 million light-years from Earth. While the images are beautiful, James Webb’s data has continued to baffle scientists, seemingly turning our understanding of how the earliest galaxies formed on its head entirely.

Orion, the Tarantula Nebula, and a wind binary

And September was just as busy for the new space telescope, with astronomers pulling images of a wind binary from Webb’s data early on, and the first direct image of an exoplanet we’ve ever taken. A photo of the Tarantula Nebula was also shared at the start of the month, with the James Webb Space Telescope capturing photos of a bizarre alien planet not long after.

James Webb capture of the Tarantula Nebula
James Webb gave astronomers a beautiful view of the Tarantula Nebula Image source: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

Webb has also given us the most detailed view of the Orion Nebula we’ve ever seen. When compared to Hubble captures of the same region, we can truly see just how far the technology inside of the James Webb Space Telescope has advanced beyond NASA and the ESA’s original space telescope.

James Webb has also provided more insight on Mars, confirming data that other spacecraft have already observed. It isn’t groundbreaking or revolutionary data, but it is information scientists at NASA could use to learn more about the Red Planet.

September also brought some bad news for the James Webb Space Telescope, though, when a study suggested that scientists could be misreading the information that Webb had captured. The study argued that our current models and beliefs of how the universe work could cause us to misinterpret the data that Webb provides. Whether that’s something we can fix anytime soon remains to be seen.

James Webb Orion Nebula
The heart of the Orion Nebula as captured by James Webb. Image source: NASA, ESA, CSA, Data reduction and analysis : PDRs4All ERS Team; graphical processing S. Fuenmayor & O. Berné

September also brought news of a friction issue with the James Webb Space Telescope’s mid-infrared instrument (MIRI), which NASA has yet to provide any kind of update on. Even with MIRI out of work at the moment, though, Webb still managed to capture the clearest image of Neptune we’ve captured in decades, as well as an image of a spiral galaxy’s skeleton.

James Webb sees fingerprints and pillars

Cosmic fingerprintImage source: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, JPL-Caltech

Back in October, James Webb turned its attention to a duo of stars known as Wolf-Rayet 140 (WR140). This rare kind of star and its companion garnered quite a bit of attention after Webb captured what appeared to be a fingerprint in space, the result of clouds of dust sent forth from the duo as they passed close to each other.

October also brought us a more in-depth image of the Pillars of Creation when James Webb captured an iconic infrared image of the beloved star factory. The Pillars of Creation have long been a point of observation for astronomers, but Webb’s image only heightened the beauty of the iconic stellar item even more.

Later in the month, NASA released another image of the Pillars of Creation, this time revealing a haunting look at the way the iconic stellar entity looks in mid-infrared light. The image is quite the contrast from the usual, brighter colors we’re used to seeing, and it provided some insight into the pillars that we hadn’t considered before.

Pillars of Creation imageImage source: SCIENCE: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Hubble Heritage Project (STScI, AURA) IMAGE PROCESSING: Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

But Webb didn’t stop there. October also brought insight into a beautiful rainbow knot of galaxies as Webb peered over 11 billion years into the past. Further, scientists are keen to use Webb to search for even more answers to questions about the early universe, something astronomers have hoped to dig into more for decades.

Now, as we head into November, a glitch in Webb’s systems has been resolved, allowing the space telescope to prepare for important observations of Saturn, which astronomers hope will provide more details about the planet.

Digging deeper into the early universe

Of course, Webb has yet to stop, and the space telescope continues to deliver tons of data to scientists all around the world. In fact, some of its latest observations have not only given us a unique look at a fiery hourglass in space, but also allowed us to look deeper into the early universe than we ever have, to galaxies from the dawn of our universe.

Webb also gave us a beautiful look at Titan, Saturn’s Moon, and even continues to help prove some of the long-believed theories that astronomers have about the satellite itself. We also saw the release of a combination image of the Pillars of Creation, which showcased the cosmic entity in even greater detail than Webb’s previous captures.

fiery hourglass in space captured by James WebbImage source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale, A. Pagan, and A. Koekemoer

Perhaps one of the most exciting things about the latest Webb updates, though, has been the fact that the space telescope could unlock a way to see dark matter, something that scientists have been trying to do for decades.

Avoiding obstacles and continuing observations

The James Webb Space Telescope is located more than a million miles from Earth and cost $10 billion to develop. It isn’t designed to receive any kind of repairs or service missions like Hubble has in the past. This lack of repair or upkeep makes every observation the telescope has extremely important, as any kind of mechanical failure could shut everything down.

It’s also this distance that has caused NASA to look for ways to avoid micrometeoroid hits directly on the mirrors that line Webb. Because if those kinds of hits continue to happen, it could very well put the space telescope, or at least some parts of its hardware, out of commission.

You can rest assured NASA and the ESA will take advantage of every moment that Webb has available. This powerful telescope continues to blow the minds of scientists all around the world, and it doesn’t look like it is ready to stop anytime soon.

Revisiting old haunts

It’s no secret that James Webb is changing everything we know about the universe. In fact, the telescope’s discoveries over the past few months have challenged everything we thought we knew about our universe’s evolution. And yet it continues to defy that knowledge with even more observations.

deep dive into cosmic cliffs by James webbImage source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI)

One of the first photos that James Webb captured was of the Cosmic Cliffs of the Carina Nebula. While beautiful, the image was mostly meant to showcase what Webb was capable of. However, scientists took a deeper dive into those Cosmic Cliffs and data earlier in 2023, discovering even more information about this hotbed for star formation.

Further digging into the discoveries that Webb has already made has also revealed metal-rich galaxies in data Webb captured during its earliest observations, prompting astronomers to revisit even more of the discoveries caught in the telescope’s web.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, Webb later captured an absolutely stunning galactic merger, which helped usher in new data about galactic evolution. Not long after, the telescope also spotted a massive shockwave, which scientists estimated was traveling at over 1 million miles per hour.

Distant Milky Ways

But the most powerful telescope man has ever sent into space didn’t stop at observing galactic mergers. The eye of that amazing observatory also turned its attention to the furrows of the early universe, where it discovered bar-like galaxies similar to the Milky Way.

webb cosmic mirage annotated
This annotated image showcases the three different times Webb picked up the transient AT 2022riv. Image source: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, P. Kelly

One such galaxy could even be the Milky Way’s twin, astronomers say, though it’s located roughly 9 billion light-years away from our own planet. But Webb has also peered deep into the past to observe beautiful cosmic mirages, like a supernova-hosting galaxy known as AT 2022riv.

Astronomers say these galaxies existed long before they should have, based on our models, completely changing everything we know about the evolution of our galaxies in our universe.

Bumps in the road and planetary woes

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though. Earlier this year, Webb experienced a terrible software glitch. NASA seemed unconcerned about the issue being longstanding, though, and the telescope continued to work tirelessly as it peered deep into our universe.

Indeed, it peered deeper than astronomers had previously expected, not only detecting an Earth-sized exoplanet but also going so far as to spot an asteroid, the smallest object Webb has ever detected.

chariklo asteroid where Webb found water ice on the asteroid's ringsImage source: ordus / Adobe

Despite the few issues it has run into, the James Webb space telescope has continued to woo astronomers and space lovers alike for the past several months. And it doesn’t seem set to stop anytime soon.

Further observations by Webb have found water ice in the rings of an asteroid originally discovered in 1997. Located too far away from our own planet for observation by other telescopes, the asteroid —known as Chariklo—appears to be surrounded by beautiful rings similar to those found around Saturn and Uranus.

Deeper and deeper still, Webb continues to peer

The telescope has also given astronomers a deeper glimpse into the frozen heart of Chamaeleon I, a region of space made up of a dark molecular cloud notable for its ongoing formation of several young stars known as protostars.

February of 2023 brought a look at a billion-year-old spiral galaxy, as well as Webb’s journey to discover the source of a mysterious distant light in space, a light that had confounded astronomers since its first detection.

pandora cluster detailed sweepImage source: NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology) and R. Bezanson (University of Pittsburgh). Image processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

One particularly handy trait of Webb’s more powerful instruments is the ability to look back at previous observational targets and glean new information from them. In February, Webb provided us with the most detailed view of Pandora’s Cluster we’ve ever captured, beating out Hubble’s previous observation by leaps and bounds.

The observatory also turned its attention to nearby spiral galaxies, peering deep into their hearts to learn more about how the stars contained within them formed. Learning more about star formation has been a very important goal for scientists using Webb’s treasure trove of data.

And that treasure trove continues to fill with new data and images, many of which will be poured over by astronomers for years to come, with astronomers looking for information on star formations’ earliest stages and even the temperature of rocky exoplanets—all of which Webb is capable of teaching us more about.

Cassiopeia A Webb imageImage source: IMAGE: NASA, ESA, CSA, Danny Milisavljevic (Purdue University), Tea Temim (Princeton University), Ilse De Looze (UGent) IMAGE PROCESSING: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Images of stars caught on the verge of supernovas, and even revisited photos of iconic celestial bodies like the Fornax constellation continue to appear, pulled from the endless stream of data that Webb is creating as it observes our universe.

Planet watching

As Webb continues its exploration of the cosmos, the space telescope has found itself drawn to the study of various planets, including a rocky exoplanet where scientists discovered water vapor on a planet that wasn’t believed to have an atmosphere. Webb also turned everything we know about one planet on its head, discovering that it is made up of water. The only question that remains now is whether that water is water-vapor or liquid water.

Webb raw images of SaturnImage source: JWST/JWSTFeed

Further, Webb’s study of a massive plume on one of Saturn’s moons could help researchers in the hunt to find signs of alien life, something many have been fighting to prove for decades. While taking a closer look at our own solar system, Webb also snapped these dazzling raw images of Saturn, which are hard to look at without gasping in awe.

Unraveling the early universe and studying black holes

But Webb hasn’t stopped there. The massive telescope continues to peer deep into the earliest parts of the universe that mankind has ever observed. There we’ve not only discovered details about an ancient galaxy, but we’ve also learned more about the source behind the early universe’s evolution.

As if that wasn’t enough, though, Webb has also broken new records, spotting the most distant active black hole that we’ve ever observed. While astronomers are confident that record will be broken again very soon, for the moment, it resides with the black hole hidden within the galaxy CEERS 1019.

Shining bright like the stars

webb star birth imageImage source: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST Team

Of course, throughout its recent exploration, Webb has continued to observe the brightly shining stars of our universe, including the deaths of those stars. Those observations helped us learn that supernovas could have driven early galaxy growth, as well as given us front-row seats to the evolution of star formation in the Virgo constellation.

Webb has also found evidence of terrifying “celestial monster” stars, which are brighter than a million Suns. And that doesn’t even take into account the in-depth observations of a star just 25 light-years away, which was unlike anything we’d ever seen before.

Webb celebrates a year of observations and looks for dark matter

After over a year at work, NASA celebrated the telescope’s anniversary with a photo of the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, the closest star-forming region to Earth. It’s an absolutely beautiful image, showing just how beautiful the gas and mass of active stellar nurseries look.

Astronomers also believe that Webb might have discovered strange stars that are fueled by dark matter, spurring astronomers to dig deeper into the mysterious forces that govern our universe. Webb also discovered unexpected carbon dust in the early galaxies of the cosmos.

The Ring Nebula shines bright and supernovas light up the night

But the telescope didn’t stop there, of course. Webb also captured some of the most breathtaking views of the Ring Nebula we have ever captured, as well as hypnotic photos of the Whirlpool galaxy.

Webb also graced us with more information, revealing hidden structures within one of the most iconic supernovas we have observed. Further observations of an ocean world first discovered in 2017 also revealed the tell-tale signs of carbon-based molecules, spurring forward astronomers searching for signs of alien life.

An outburst worth a thousand words

Later, in September, James Webb’s observations yieled new information about a young star, capturing a beautiful image of the protostar’s outburst of energy. And when peering deep into the ancient times of the cosmos, Webb also spotted evidence of thousands of Milky Way-like galaxies that shouldn’t exist, leaving scientists scratching their heads.

The telescope continued to wow us, though, when it captured new wide-angle images of the Orion Nebula, showcasing the iconic cosmic body in an entirely new light. And scientists even figured out why Webb’s observations of the early galaxies are so bright, too.

NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute later shared an image of a star-forming region called NGC 346 within the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) in October and followed that up with observations of an ultra-powerful jet stream on Jupiter.

The Crab Nebula and our sun’s birthing moments

The first of November brought a spectacular image of the Crab Nebula, as well as a glimpse at what our sun might have looked like when it was still birthing.

During the past year, Hubble and Webb have teamed up to showcase what a galactic collision looks like as well. And recent discoveries made by Webb could even help us understand how Earth formed.

The telescope has also helped astronomers study new exoplanets in great detail, even finding an exoplanet with sand clouds and sulfur-filled skies. But not everything Webb has taught us has been about the faraway cosmos.

While taking a closer look at our home galaxy, Webb also revealed never-before-seen details at the center of the Milky Way, surprising astronomers. Not long ago, observations of “teenage” galaxies discovered unexpected elements. And Webb finally detected methane in an exoplanet’s atmosphere for the first time.

Ghosts of Christmas present and a closer look at Uranus

To help kick off the December holiday season, Webb captured an image of a cosmic ghost hiding in plain sight. Later observations confirmed the existence of the tiniest free-floating brown dwarf we’d ever discovered and new, stunningly detailed images of Uranus and all of its rings.

Webb will continue to fly through the cosmos as it watches galaxies collide, the light from their stars shining brighter than 1 trillion suns. Watching as the remnants of stars like Cassiopeia A are captured in a new light, shedding more of the mystery that continues to tug at human hearts, drawing their fascination with space deeper and deeper.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.