Very soon mankind will be able to see the deepest images of the universe ever recorded. In two weeks, the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – NASA’s super-expensive, super-powerful optical imaging sensor – will release its first full-color images, and officials at the agency have hinted today that this could be just the beginning.
“This is further than mankind has ever looked before,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a media briefing Wednesday (calling since he tested positive for COVID-19 the night before). “We’re just beginning to understand what Webb can and will do.”
NASA launched James Webb last December; Since then, it has performed a specialized launch process, fine-tuning all 18 of its giant mirror segments. A few months ago, NASA shared a “selfie” marking the successful operation of the IR camera and primary mirrors. Earlier this month, the agency announced that the telescope’s first images will be ready for public presentation on July 12 at 10:30 a.m. ET.
One aspect of the universe that JWST will unveil are exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system – specifically their atmospheres. This is key to understanding whether there are other planets in the Universe similar to ours, or whether life can be found on planets with different atmospheric conditions than Earth. And Thomas Zurbuchen, deputy administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, confirmed that images of an exoplanet’s atmospheric spectrum will be shared with the public on July 12.
Essentially, James Webb’s extraordinary ability to capture the infrared spectrum means it will be able to detect small molecules like carbon dioxide. With this, scientists can actually investigate whether and how atmospheric compositions influence the ability for life to form and evolve on a planet.
NASA officials also shared other good news: the agency’s estimates of the telescope’s excess fuel capacity were spot on, and JWST will be able to image space for about 20 years.
“These 20 years will not only allow us to delve deeper into history and time, but we will also delve deeper into science because we will have the opportunity to learn, grow and make new observations,” she said Deputy NASA Administrator Pam Melroy.
JWST didn’t have it easy going into space. The entire project came very close to not happening at all, Nelson said, after he ran out of money and Congress considered canceling it entirely. There were also numerous delays due to technical issues. Then, when it reached space, it was promptly pinged by a micrometeoroid, an event sure to have any NASA official cringe.
But overall, “it’s been an amazing six months,” confirmed Webb project manager Bill Ochs.