spaceSpace and Physics

NASA Unveils First-Ever Images Taken By JWST


Jack Dunhill

Social Media Coordinator and Staff Writer

clockFeb 11 2022, 15:36 UTC

The JWST will send its first proper images this summer, looking back in time and space to when the first stars and galaxies formed. Image Credit: NASA, ESA

NASA has unveiled the first images from the revolutionary next-generation space telescope JWST today, showing the first photons of light captured by the telescope as it aligns itself to see the oldest objects and events in the universe.  

While the reveal is a monumental moment in astronomy and the future of space exploration, you may find the images somewhat unimpressive. Don’t be disheartened – these images are designed for technical purposes as the telescope enters a three-month alignment phase, and not for our viewing pleasure just yet. The fruits of the JWST won’t be perfect for a desktop wallpaper until that phase is complete.  

JWST first pics
JWST sees its first star - 18 times. Image credit: NASA

There are several steps the process must go through before we can expect the first real images from the telescope this summer. The first is to align the telescope relative to the spacecraft and that has been done by pointing the telescope (and the individual mirrors) to star HD 84406, which is bright and isolated. If you look to the sky on a clear night (with a high-powered telescope, unfortunately) and spot everyone’s favorite constellation, the Big Dipper, directly to the right of the "pan" is where you’ll find HD 84406. The unfocused image produced here has 18 pictures of the star in a somewhat random position, and in step two, the team will align them and adjust the secondary mirror too. 

During the image capturing process, which started on February 2, the telescope was repointed to 156 positions around the star and generated 1,560 images using the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) instrument's 10 detectors. The whole thing lasted 25 hours, but incredibly the observatory was able to locate the star in each of its mirror segments within the first 6 hours and 16 exposures, NASA revealed.

The images were then stitched together to produce a single mosaic that captures what each primary mirror segment captured in one frame. The images revealed are only a center portion of that mosaic, which NASA says is over 2 billion pixels.

jwst first pics
This image mosaic was created by pointing the telescope at a bright, isolated star in the constellation Ursa Major known as HD 84406. This star was chosen specifically because it is easily identifiable and not crowded by other stars of similar brightness, which helps to reduce background confusion. Each dot within the mosaic is labeled by the corresponding primary mirror segment that captured it. These initial results closely match expectations and simulations. Credit: NASA

These images now represent the first 18 pictures from more than 1,000 images, all of a single star, hence their repetitive nature. The blurriness will disappear as the mirrors align in due course, but the images have huge technical value to the team working to make the telescope the most advanced eye into the universe the world has ever seen. 

In the process of aligning the mirrors, the JWST is also currently "chilling out", as NASA puts it. Specifically, now that the giant sunshield has deployed to protect the intricate components of the telescope from the harsh sunlight and reflections from Earth, the dark side of the JWST is passively cooling down until it reaches a steady-state temperature that the telescope will then operate at. This temperature is between -223°C (-370°F) and -233°C (-388°F). In the cold clutches of space, it will take a few more weeks before the JWST has reached its final temperature.

jwst selfie
This “selfie” was created using a specialized imaging lens inside of the NIRCam instrument designed to take images of the primary mirror segments instead of images of space. This configuration is not used during scientific operations and is used strictly for engineering and alignment purposes. In this case, the bright segment was pointed at a bright star, while the others aren’t currently in the same alignment. This image gave an early indication of the primary mirror alignment to the instrument. Image credit: NASA

NASA will discuss the images in a press conference at 11 am EST (16:00 GMT), which you can watch as well as view the images yourself, here.  

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