And we're barely scratching the surface.
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, conducted using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, was once considered the zenith of astronomical surveys, capturing light from some 10,000 galaxies in the deepest reaches of the cosmos — all in a single image.
But as you may be very familiar with at this point, the James Webb Space Telescope has proven to be so advanced, it's making the Hubble's most Herculean efforts look almost trivial.
Now, astronomers are sharing some of the first images from James Webb's largest survey to date: the COSMOS-Web, set to eclipse the scope of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field with a whopping 25,000 galaxies in just its first stage.
"It's one of the largest JWST images taken so far," said Caitlin Casey, co-principal investigator of the project and an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin, in a press release. "And yet it's just four percent of the data we will get for the full survey."
"When it is finished, this deep field will be astoundingly large and overwhelmingly beautiful."
Already observable in the first image are a host of exotic galaxies: spiral galaxies, merger galaxies, the gravity of galaxies creating cosmic lenses, magnifying older galaxies even further behind them.
🚨 Huzzah! First images from @NASAWebb’s largest year-1 program (COSMOS-Web) show dazzling spiral galaxies, gravitational lenses and galaxy mergers. https://t.co/OyojS02ayY @astrocaits @UTAstronomy @UTAustin pic.twitter.com/sgnjhafMgp
— NaturalSciences @ UT (@TexasScience) March 9, 2023
Like other deep field surveys preceding it, the COSMOS-Web focuses only on a tiny sliver of the sky — just 0.6 square degrees, or about the size of three full moons according to NASA — using the telescope's Near-Infrared Camera. Its Mid-Infrared Instrument scans an additional 0.2 square degrees.
In doing so, scientists hope to deepen our understanding of the Reionization Era between 400,000 and one billion years after the Big Bang, a time during which stars, galaxies, and other structures emerged.
Of particular interest are these primeval galaxies, and how dark matter, a hypothetical but unobservable substance thought to be holding our galaxies together, evolved along with them.
And, to reiterate, this is merely the first stage of the survey. When it wraps up, the over 200 scientists collaborating from across the globe will have surveyed up to one million galaxies over the course of some 255 hours of observations. That's the goal, anyhow.
It's ambitious, but the scientists are undeniably off to a stellar start. According to Santosh Harish, an astrophysicist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the James Webb is so effortlessly detailed that "sources are literally popping out in every small patch of the observed sky."
"With these first observations," he said in the release, "we have just barely scratched the surface of what is to come with the completion of this program, next year."
More on space: Hubble May Have Spotted a Supermassive Black Hole Breaking Free From Its Galaxy