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.
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.
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.
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.