Side-By-Side Pics Compare Hubble And JWST

Ryan Ford
James Webb Space Telescope in space with Earth in the background
Flickr | Arianespace, ESA, NASA, CSA, CNES

NASA's newest, fanciest high-tech tool for observing deep space, the James Webb Space Telescope, is finally up and running, in orbit, sending images back to Earth, and we all get to see what's going on in outer space like never before. It's pretty awe-inspiring.

But when you're talking about a tool that leading minds spent over two decades planning and constructing, at a cost of about $10 billion, you have to wonder if it was money and time well spent. Well, when you compare the JWST's images with those taken by the Hubble — itself an incredible piece of engineering that advanced our knowledge of the universe by leaps and bounds — it all becomes clear. And then some.

It is important to remember that the Hubble Space Telescope was revolutionary in its time.

Hubble Space Telescope orbiting Earth
Unsplash | NASA

It didn't work quite right at the outset, with images initially coming back blurry, but after a slight adjustment, Hubble gave us a look at the universe like never before. In space, it has the accuracy equivalent to "seeing a pair of fireflies in Tokyo that are less than 10 feet (3 m) apart from Washington, D.C."

The Hubble has also looked further into the past than anything else before it, seeing light that originated about 13.4 billion years ago. It's a marvel.

But the JWST is showing us just how much more advanced it is, in startling detail.

comparison of Hubble and JWST images of the Southern Ring Nebula
NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA), NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI | NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA), NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Here, for example, is the Southern Ring Nebula, also known as the "Eight-Burst" Nebula. It's about 2,000 light years away from Earth. On the left is Hubble's snap of the nebula — on the right is the JWST's. The dust clouds of the nebula are seen in sharper detail, the star field around the nebula shows up, and for the first time, astronomers could see that a second star in the nebula is surrounded by dust.

Then there's Stephan's Quintet, a grouping of five galaxies located in the constellation of Pegasus.

comparison of Hubble and JWST images of Stephan's Quintet
NASA | NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team, NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

The Southern Ring Nebula is practically a next-door neighbor compared to Stephan's Quintet, which is about 300 million light years away.

Again, Hubble's image is on the left, and JWST's on the right. As before, there's so much more detail visible in JWST's image, with gas, dust, and stars being pulled away from the galaxies by gravitational forces, and more of the surrounding star field shows up as well.

The Carina Nebula, about 7,600 light years away, has to be one of the most awe-inspiring celestial bodies.

comparison of Hubble and JWST images of the Carina Nebula,
NASA | NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Hubble took a beautiful image of the Carina Nebula's "Cosmic Cliffs" that I'm sure served as many a space nerd's screen saver. It's the one on the left. But the JWST's image has surely replaced that Hubble image already. It's gorgeous, thanks to the JWST's infrared cameras that can pierce through the nebula's clouds.

The first image released to the public showed an area of space known as SMACS 0723.

comparison of Hubble and JWST images of SMACS 0723

That string of letters and numbers doesn't mean much to most people, but for astronomers, it's a great target for telescopes. As the European Space Agency explained, the "massive foreground galaxy clusters magnify and distort the light of objects behind them, permitting a deep field view into both the extremely distant and intrinsically faint galaxy populations."

As you can see, the Hubble's image isn't much to look at. The JWST's, however, is frankly shocking — you can see, with your own eyes, how gravity affects the light of distant galaxies, making them appear to bend.

And to think, the JWST is just getting started!

NASA is expected to release even more images on July 14, including the JWST's first observations within our solar system. In the meantime, if you want to put the images released so far into some context, check out the link above, which lets you look around the sky and see where each would be located.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments!