Mark your calendar. On July 12, NASA releases the first color images and science from the James Webb Space Telescope. Our universe may never look the same again.
10:30 a.m. EDT, July 12, 2022.
Mark this date in your calendar now, because you don’t want to miss the release of the first color images and science from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
It’s been just over six months since JWST launched at Christmas, and NASA’s $10 billion space telescope, in development for over 20 years, has been taking pictures and making scientific observations.
Last Wednesday, NASA hosted a media day at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland that included a gathering of JWST scientists, engineers, managers and the international media to release the first color and science images of the JWST on July 12.
The images to be released will be a “new view of the cosmos that we have never seen before. One of the images will be the deepest picture of our universe ever taken – further than mankind has ever looked into space,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson (who was forced to attend the conference due to COVID-19). “Webb is a true scientific feat whose journey has only just begun.”
Nelson’s comments were supported by STScI Director Dr. Kenneth Sembach repeats who said that “in two weeks, historical first scientific images [will] show that the universe will be changed forever. The universe before Webb and the universe after Webb. More beautiful than ever. Time to rewrite the textbooks again.”
We also learned from NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy that the telescope’s long life is safer than ever.
“JWST’s excess fuel estimate confirms 20 years of onboard fuel. Launching Ariane 5 was a perfect job,” said Melroy. “JWST will be at the heart of NASA’s astrophysical mission for the next two decades.”
During the first question-and-answer session, I asked the panel, “Who decides whether to publish the images?”
dr Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s deputy administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said he asked the team, the people closest to the project, to represent the best in their selection. His response to her selection was, “Great!”
Zurbuchen added: “July 12 will be an emotional moment – a new worldview with these first images and scientific results.”
“Everywhere Webb looks, there’s something we’ve never seen before because Webb is looking in the infrared,” he said. “We are discovering galaxies we have never seen before. Each image is checked and analyzed to see what it contains. A test image has over 250 new galaxies.”
“We will forever remember what we saw,” he concluded. “I got emotional when I saw these pictures. [They are] deeply personal and, to be honest, surprised me.”
At the briefing, I learned that about 30 people were working on the July 12 images. There will be 10 to 20 images, some of which are “down” – received by STSci and already processed.
But there are still more images to be sourced and edited before the day before release.
Each of the high-resolution, full-color images shows a different aspect of the universe. One image will reportedly be the deepest glimpse into the universe yet. Another shows how galaxies interact and grow through collisions. We will see the life cycles of stars from their birth to their death.
Webb’s first spectrum of an exoplanet (a planet outside our solar system) is also revealed.
These, along with other images and scientific evidence to be released July 12, promise to show humanity what Webb is capable of.
The personal highlight for me at the briefing was when we saw JWST’s Flight Control Room (FCR), a large room full of labeled control panels and large computer screens displaying real-time telemetry and data, and where Webb is controlled and monitored 24/7/365.
JWST’s Mission Operations Manager (or MOM) Carl Starr led the tour. He described JWST as a “fabulous machine. Complex but works beautifully.”
Starr said that the criteria for JWST to work properly, as shown in the very first test image, was: “If we get a blob or two (galaxies), it works. With all the stars and galaxies we saw, we knew it worked!”
We weren’t allowed to take photos at the event, but on the big FCR screens we were allowed to see the very first test images that Dr. Zurbuchen described in his briefing.
The first image was nothing but blobs filling the entire view! Nothing but blobs everywhere! The next image was the processed result, showing 250 galaxies never before seen by man.
I was stunned. Beautiful galaxies, from large spiral galaxies to enigmatic elliptical galaxies to “I’m not sure what I see” galaxies.
When I saw the first test images, I was reassured that humanity will see the universe in a way like never before – and it will be transformative. We go path beyond what the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has been able to reveal to us.
If you are interested in seeing these images when they are released, there are events in our area where you can see a live stream of their release.
On July 13, NASA is hosting a live event to answer questions from the space-loving community. You can submit your own questions about these first images – and spectra – by using the hashtag #UnfoldtheUniverse on social media.
Also on July 13, the NOVA program on PBS will air “ULTIMATE SPACE TELESCOPE,” an hour-long documentary about JWST. I saw the preview and was very impressed, even though the newly released images won’t be included in the program until July 12th.
On a personal note, an image I took of the star used to focus on the JWST will be featured in the documentary.
Humanity could certainly use some positive news right now. I believe the sight of the new JWST images – and the new universe they reveal – will make us stop and reflect, if just for a moment, on the great things we are capable of. Perhaps we can share a universal pride in our achievement, as we have in the past when it comes to historic space firsts.
I really hope so.
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