ABOVE: The James Webb Space Telescope’s first deep field image shows a cluster of galaxies called SMACS 0273, along with myriad background galaxies stretching most of the way back in time and space.

THE FIRST SCIENCE IMAGE FROM NASA’S new super-scope — the James Webb Space Telescope has been released — revealing thousands of galaxies as they were billions of years ago, shortly after the Big Bang (in cosmic terms, at least).

Called Webb’s First Deep Field, the image shows a cluster of galaxies called SMACS 0273 as it was 4.6 billion years ago. (That’s because it has taken that long for the light to reach us.)

The image is a composite of images taken at different wavelengths by the telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam).

The total exposure time for the image was 12.5 hours. The Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest fields took weeks of exposure time, and couldn’t go as ‘deep’ as Webb can in the infrared. (Astronomers use the term ‘deep’ to convey looking far, far away into the universe and far back in time.)

Webb’s new image also shows what appears to be unusual arcs or blobs. These are entirely expected, and are known as gravitational arcs. The combined mass of the galaxies within the SMACS 0273 cluster distorts the light from galaxies far in the background, making them appear stretched out.

Speaking at a function as the White House in Washington DC, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said of the image, that “if you held a grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm’s length, that is the part of the universe that you’re seeing — just one little speck of the universe.”

Adding to his remarks, US Vice President Kamala Harris said that “When NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, we were able to see the stars unobstructed by the Earth’s atmosphere and understand the universe in ways we could have never imagined even a few decades earlier.”

“And now we enter a new phase of scientific discovery. Building on the legacy of Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope allows us to see deeper into space than ever before and in stunning clarity.  It will enhance what we know about the origins of our universe, our Solar System, and possibly life itself.

“This was made possible by partnership among nations. And it is an example of how the scientific endeavour can build upon the international rules and norms that govern our cooperation in space.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is the largest and most powerful (in certain wavelength bands) space telescope ever launched. Often called the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, it is optimised for studying the universe at infrared wavelengths… ideal for spotting objects such as galaxies that were around in the earliest years after the Big Bang.

Further images are scheduled to be released in the early morning hours of Wednesday, July 13, Australian Eastern Standard Time. You can watch the event live.