The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – the largest, most expensive, and most complex observatory ever launched into space – is set to release its first proper high-res full-color images on July 12, six months after its nail-biting launch. Now, NASA has offered some tantalizing hints at what we might see.
Standing on the shoulders of Hubble, JWST can peer further back in time than any other telescope. Its primary science targets have been decided for years, but the brains behind the mission have kept the subjects of the first full-color images tightly under wraps, although they’re hinting it could be mind-blowing for scientists and non-scientists alike.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson kept pretty schtum about what early-universe objects JWST has been focused on in a media briefing yesterday, but the images will be "the deepest image of our universe that has ever been taken," he confirmed.
"This is farther than humanity has ever looked before, and we're only beginning to understand what Webb can and will do."
Nelson was speaking at a media event at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, which manages JWST operations as well as Hubble. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate also hinted at one of the images to be released on July 12: JWST's first spectrum image of an exoplanet.
Spectroscopy is a tool to analyze the chemical and molecular composition of distant objects like exoplanets. It measures the amount of light emitted at certain wavelengths, hinting at the objects formation history.
The telescope’s prime job is to peer into the depths of the cosmos, looking backwards in time to shed light on the birth of the first galaxies. It also hopes to identify distant exoplanets, studying their atmosphere to determine whether they could potentially harbor life.
The process of deciding what JWST should first look at has been in the works for five years. Back in 2017, the initial targets for JWST were revealed to include looking at the process of star formation, Jupiter and its moons, atmospheres around exoplanets, and examining the super-heated regions around massive black holes known as quasars.
Even the exact number of the images that will revealed was not shared, despite journalists' requests, however, "each of them will reveal different aspects of the universe in unprecedented detail and sensitivity," said Klaus Pontoppidan, JWST project scientist at the STScI.
And they will be record breaking. According to Nelson, “With this telescope, it’s really hard not to break records.”
The images are set to be revealed on July 12 at 10:30 am EDT (2:30 pm UTC) and you can watch it all live via the live stream below or via NASA's various social media platforms on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.
After 14 long years of delays, the JWST was launched into space on Christmas Day 2021. While it reached its final destination – L2, the second Lagrangian Point, around 1.5 million kilometers (932,056 miles) from Earth – by late January 2022, it spend the next few months deploying, calibrating, and testing its array of instruments.
Early images have already been released, suggesting the telescope's optics are matching or even beating expectations. Soon, it will be time to see the first fruits of this labor and the full potential of JWST.
Even beyond the subject matter of the first full-color images, however, no one is sure how the images will visually appear – not even the researchers on the mission.
“Of course, there are things we are expecting and hoping to see, but with a new telescope and this new high-resolution infrared data, we just won’t know until we see it,” said STScI’s lead science visuals developer Joseph DePasquale.
These images will be just the beginning of JWST's real science mission.
“As we near the end of preparing the observatory for science, we are on the precipice of an incredibly exciting period of discovery about our universe. The release of Webb’s first full-color images will offer a unique moment for us all to stop and marvel at a view humanity has never seen before,” said Eric Smith, JWST program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
“These images will be the culmination of decades of dedication, talent, and dreams – but they will also be just the beginning.”