US President Joe Biden unveils 'historic' NASA image of 4.6 billion-year-old galaxies

US President Joe Biden has unveiled the "historic" first image from NASA's James Webb space telescope, which has been hailed as a breakthrough for astronomy.

The livestream culminated in the president showing the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe taken so far.

According to the agency, the image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, known as Webb's First Deep Field, is overflowing with detail.

"Thousands of galaxies - including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared - have appeared in Webb's view for the first time."

The image shows the galaxy cluster as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago and, due to the mass of the cluster, magnifies much more distant galaxies behind it. 

NASA administrator Bill Nelson said this slice of the universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm's length by someone on the ground.

The image is a composite of different images taken at different wavelengths using the Webb's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). It took 12.5 hours to do so, while achieving depths beyond the Hubble Space Telescope's deepest fields, which took weeks.

The galaxies have tiny, faint structures that have never been seen before, including star clusters and diffuse features, NASA said.

Researchers will soon begin to learn more about the galaxies' masses, ages, histories, and compositions, as Webb seeks the earliest galaxies in the universes.

More images will be released on Wednesday, NZ time. NASA had originally intended including the released image as part of that batch but determined it was so dramatic that Biden should be the one to reveal it to the world, NPR reported.

Supplied / NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI
The full image, showing thousands of galaxies. Photo credit: Supplied / NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

The James Webb space telescope, a partnership with the ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), was launched at the end of 2021 and had been going through six-months of preparation.

That included instrument calibration and alignment of the mirrors to allow it to take the stunning new images.

"As we near the end of preparing the observatory for science, we are on the precipice of an incredibly exciting period of discovery about our universe," Eric Smith, Webb program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington said.

"The release of Webb’s first full-colour images will offer a unique moment for us all to stop and marvel at a view humanity has never seen before. These images will be the culmination of decades of dedication, talent, and dreams – but they will also be just the beginning.”