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We’re about to have an entirely new perspective on the universe.
The James Webb Space Telescope will release its first high-resolution color images on July 12. One of those images “is the deepest image of our universe that has ever been taken,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson during a news conference on Wednesday.
“If you think about that, this is farther than humanity has ever moved before,” Nelson said. “And we’re only beginning to understand what Webb can and will do. It’s going to explore objects in the solar system and atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting other stars, giving us clues as to whether potentially their atmospheres are similar to our own.”
Nelson, who shared that he tested positive for Covid-19 Tuesday night, was unable to attend the event in person at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
The Webb mission, which was estimated to last for 10 years, has enough excess fuel capability to operate for 20 years, according to NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy.
Meanwhile, the Webb team is finalizing the last steps of preparing the observatory and its instruments to collect scientific data, which should finish next week, said Bill Ochs, NASA’s Webb project manager.
Tthe observatory is performing even better than expected, engineers for the mission said. And the team continues to work on developing strategies to avoid micrometeoroid impacts, like the one that dinged part of Webb’s mirror in May.
What to expect
The space observatory, which launched in December, will be able to peer inside the atmospheres of exoplanets and observe some of the first galaxies created after the universe began by observing them through infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye.
Webb began taking its first images a couple of weeks ago, and it’s still capturing some of the images that will be shared on July 12. That packet of color images will be the result of 120 hours of observation – about five days’ worth of data.
The initial goal for the telescope was to see the first stars and galaxies of the universe, essentially watching “the universe turn the lights on for the first time,” said Eric Smith, Webb program scientist and NASA Astrophysics Division chief scientist.
The exact number and nature of the images has not been 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 science capabilities as well as the ability of its massive golden mirror and science instruments to produce spectacular images.
The images will show how galaxies interact and grow and how the collisions between galaxies drive star formation, as well as examples of the violent life cycle of stars. And we can expect to see the first spectrum of an exoplanet, or how wavelengths of light and different colors reveal characteristics of other worlds.
The telescope’s Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph instrument wrapped up preparations this week. The instrument will be able to use a specialized prism to disperse the light collected from cosmic sources to create three distinct rainbows that reveal hues of more than 2,000 infrared colors from a single observation.
This is especially handy when observing exoplanets to determine if they have an atmosphere – and picking out atoms and molecules within it when starlight shines through the atmosphere to determine its composition.
The best part is that the Webb team is just at the beginning of the mission, and the data collected by the space observatory will be publicly released so scientists around the world “can start a shared journey of discovery,” Pontoppidan said.
The data gathered by Webb will enable scientists to make precise measurements of planets, stars and galaxies in a way that has never been possible before, said Susan Mullally, Webb deputy project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
“Webb can see backwards in time just after the big bang by looking for galaxies that are so far away, the light has taken many billions of years to get from those galaxies to ourselves,” said Jonathan Gardner, Webb deputy senior project scientist at NASA.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, has seen some of the first images that will be shared on July 12.
“It’s an emotional moment when you see nature suddenly releasing some of its secrets,” Zurbuchen said on Wednesday. “With this telescope, it’s really hard not to break records.”