The James Webb Space Telescope will release its first high-resolution color images on July 12. One of those images “is the deepest picture of our Universe ever taken,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a news conference on Wednesday.
“If you think about it, this is further than humanity has ever traveled before,” Nelson said. “And we’re just beginning to understand what Webb can and will do. It will explore objects in the Solar System and atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting other stars, giving us clues as to whether their atmospheres may resemble our own.”
Nelson, who announced he tested positive for Covid-19 Tuesday night, was unable to attend the event in person at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
According to NASA Assistant Administrator Pam Melroy, the Webb mission, estimated to last 10 years, has enough excess fuel capacity to last 20 years.
Meanwhile, the Webb team is completing the final steps to prepare the observatory and its science data-gathering instruments, which should be complete next week, said Bill Ochs, NASA’s Webb project manager.
What to expect
Webb started capturing its first images a few weeks ago and it’s still capturing some of the images shared on July 12th. This package of color images will be the result of 120 hours of observation – about five days of data.
The telescope’s original goal was to see the first stars and galaxies of the universe, essentially watching “the universe turn on the light for the first time,” said Eric Smith, Webb program scientist and chief scientist at NASA’s Astrophysics Division.
The exact number and type of images was not shared, but “each of them will reveal different aspects of the universe in unprecedented detail and sensitivity,” said Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
The first release will highlight Webb’s scientific prowess, as well as the ability of his massive golden mirror and scientific instruments to produce spectacular images.
The images show how galaxies interact and grow, and how collisions between galaxies drive star formation, as well as examples of the violent stellar life cycle. And we can expect to see the first spectrum of an exoplanet, or how wavelengths of light and different colors reveal properties of other worlds.
The telescope’s near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph instrument completed preparations this week. The instrument will be able to use a special prism to scatter light collected from cosmic sources to produce three different rainbows showing hues of more than 2,000 infrared colors from a single observation.
This is especially handy when observing exoplanets to see if they have atmospheres – and picking out atoms and molecules within them when starlight shines through the atmosphere to determine their composition.
Best of all, the Webb team is only at the beginning of the mission, and the data collected by the space observatory will be made publicly available so scientists around the world can “embark on a journey of discovery together,” Pontoppidan said.
The data Webb will collect will allow scientists to make precise measurements of planets, stars and galaxies in ways never before possible, said Susan Mullally, Webb associate project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
“Webb can look back in time just after the Big Bang by looking for galaxies so distant that it took light many billions of years to reach us from those galaxies,” said Jonathan Gardner, deputy senior Webb’s project scientist at NASA.
Thomas Zurbuchen, deputy administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, saw some of the first images to be shared on July 12.
“It’s an emotional moment when you see nature suddenly revealing some of its secrets,” Zurbuchen said on Wednesday. “It’s really hard not to break records with this telescope.”