Hubble and James Webb Space Telescope Images Compared: See the Difference

The James Webb Space Telescope builds on Hubble's legacy with stunning new views of the cosmos.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
James Webb golden mirrors shine inside a work facility.
1 of 12 Northrop Grumman

James Webb Space Telescope

More stars. More galaxies. More data on exoplanets. Deeper into the history of the universe. 

The James Webb Space Telescope rocked astronomy with its first major image release on July 11, 2022. Comparisons between Hubble Space Telescope and Webb views of the same cosmic targets show just have far we've come.

Webb launched over three decades after Hubble and represents the advancements in space telescope technology that have happened over that time. Webb is not here to steal Hubble's thunder. It's here to see the universe in a new way.   

This is what the James Webb Space Telescope looked like during a test deployment of its primary mirror in March 2020. We don't have any glorious space shots of Webb out in orbit. This mirror selfie will have to suffice. The telescope -- the subject of a controversy over its name -- uses a collection of gold-plated hexagonal mirrors and sees the universe in infrared light.

Hubble looks like a shiny cylinder against the dark of space with the curve of Earth below.
2 of 12 NASA

Hubble Space Telescope

NASA has specifically called Webb the "successor" to Hubble and not its replacement. The Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990 and has been operating in the challenging conditions of space for over 30 years, a remarkable lifespan. Hubble mainly sees in optical (visible) and ultraviolet wavelengths, so its "eyes" work differently from Webb, which sees in infrared. Infrared helps Webb gaze through dusty regions of space that Hubble can't penetrate.

Webb's mirror is also much bigger than Hubble's. "This larger light collecting area means that Webb can peer farther back into time than Hubble is capable of doing," said NASA. 

A spray of galaxies and stars looking small against the darkness of space.
3 of 12 NASA, ESA, R. Ellis (Caltech), and the HUDF 2012 Team

Hubble Deep Field 2012

In 2012, a decade before Webb's first images came out, the Hubble team delivered the deepest view of space we'd ever seen, known as the eXtreme Deep Field (XDF). It was a new version of part of the telescope's older Ultra Deep Field image. The XDF showed about 5,000 galaxies with some of them reaching back to 13.2 billion years ago. 

NASA and the European Space Agency released a series of Hubble Deep Fields over the years. They're still beautiful, but they also highlight just how powerful Webb is by comparison.

a view of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of galaxies in deep space
4 of 12 NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Webb's Deep Field

The first major Webb image arrived with much fanfare on July 11, 2022. It represents the deepest infrared view of our universe yet. The area in the view is called SMAC 0723 and it's home to a huge galaxy cluster. The pointed objects are stars, while everything else is a galaxy. 

The image is called Webb's First Deep Field, which hints at much more to come. "Webb's image covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm's length by someone on the ground -- and reveals thousands of galaxies in a tiny sliver of vast universe," said NASA.

The clarity is astounding. It's like a time machine, showing SMAC 0723 as it looked 4.6 billion years ago.

Check out a full breakdown on the first Webb images here.

Stars glimmer above and through a mountain-like landscape of cloudy-looking reddish-brown nebula.
5 of 12 NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Hubble's Cosmic Cliffs View

This Hubble view of the northwest corner of the Carina Nebula was released in 2008. This area of the nebula is nicknamed the Cosmic Cliffs. It's quite a sight to behold, but it's also less clear than Webb's view. Webb's infrared eyes help reveal previously invisible areas of star birth that Hubble couldn't capture.

Carina Nebula: Stars sparkle against an indigo backdrop over rusty bronze gas clouds
6 of 12 NASA

Webb Snaps Carina Nebula's 'Cosmic Cliffs'

Hello, new computer wallpaper. 

One of the most eye-catching new James Webb Space Telescope images is this mounding mass of star birth in the Carina Nebula. "The blistering, ultraviolet radiation from the young stars is sculpting the nebula's wall by slowly eroding it away. Dramatic pillars tower above the glowing wall of gas, resisting this radiation," said ESA.

Take note of how many stars you can see in this image. The entire landscape almost looks like it's in 3D. 

Glowing blob of light with blueish center and yellow and reddish layers near the outside.
7 of 12 NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)

Hubble Sees the Southern Ring

The Southern Ring Nebula is also known as the Eight Burst Nebula thanks to its figure-8 appearance as seen by some telescopes. Hubble's 1998 look at the nebula is lovely, showing diffuse shades of blue, yellow and brownish-red. It has a bit of a blob-like, milky look to it. 

Buckle up for Webb's version next.

A stunning blob of bluish light with stars glinting in the center. The nebula extends out in waves of orange and red.
8 of 12 NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Webb Sees the Southern Ring

Holy details, Batman. Webb's view of the Southern Ring Nebula (formally known as NGC 3132) revealed new information about it. "The dimmer star at the center of this scene has been sending out rings of gas and dust for thousands of years in all directions, and NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has revealed for the first time that this star is cloaked in dust," said NASA.

It shows just how beautiful dying stars can be.

An infrared and near-infrared comparison of JWST's image of the Southern Ring Nebula.
9 of 12 NASA

Southern Ring Side-By-Side

NASA shared two different Webb perspectives on the Southern Ring Nebula. "The stars -- and their layers of light -- are prominent in the image from Webb's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the left, while the image from Webb's Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the right shows for the first time that the second star is surrounded by dust," said NASA.

Hubble view of five galaxies looking like swirling objects of light against a color-flecked backdrop of space.
10 of 12 NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

Hubble Eyes Stephan's Quintet

Stephan's Quintet -- formally known as Hickson Compact Group 92 (HCG 92) -- is a group of five galaxies, four of which are busy interacting with each other. The group is in the constellation Pegasus. The lighter-colored galaxy to the left is actually closer to us and isn't a part of the in-crowd of the other four. 

Hubble's vision of the quintet from 2009 is plenty ethereal. Webb took a fresh look in 2022.

Webb view of five galaxies looking like swirling objects of light against a color-flecked backdrop of space.
11 of 12 NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Stephan's Quintet Seen by Webb

The James Webb Space Telescope's view of Stephan's Quintet took quite an effort to put together. It's made from nearly 1,000 separate image files. 

"With its powerful, infrared vision and extremely high spatial resolution, Webb shows never-before-seen details in this galaxy group," said NASA. "Sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and starburst regions of fresh star birth grace the image."

Side-by-side black and white images of stars. The stars look sharper in the image on the right.
12 of 12 NASA/ESA/STScl

Hubble 'First Light' Image

Let's wind the clock back to 1990 when the Hubble Space Telescope was still the new kid in the cosmos. To show how advanced Hubble was, NASA released a comparison of stars. The image of stars on the left came from a ground-based telescope in Chile while the image on the right was Hubble's much sharper "first light" view of the same stars. 

Hubble is now on the other end of the comparison as Webb delivers sparkling new images. It's the natural path of things when it comes to the onward march of space technology. Hubble has weathered many technical glitches over the decades, but NASA expects it will continue to serve the astronomy community for years, not in Webb's shadow, but as a venerated elder that's still delivering quality science.

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