As space enthusiasts count down the days to the release of the first science-grade images from the JWST, NASA is helping whet people's appetite with the image above, which represents the deepest view of the universe ever taken in infrared.
The six points of the brighter stars in the field of view might be the first thing you notice, but the real significance lies in the abundance of galaxies, including the remarkable ring towards the bottom right.
Arguably, this is yet another example of Canadians getting the jump on their southern counterparts, since the image is a product of the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) – the Canadian Space Agency's contribution, which allows the telescope to lock onto faint objects.
The FGS isn't intended to capture images like this – most of what it records will be deleted, rather than waste valuable communications bandwidth. Instead, its role is to make sure the JWST is pointing in exactly the right direction so subsequent images and measurements can be perfect. However, during the commissioning stage, the JWST's operators are keen to establish all instruments' capabilities.
Over eight days in early May, the FGS aperture was used to take 72 exposures, overlapping on this part of the sky, with a total exposure time of 32 hours, confirming the telescope's capacity to maintain its orientation. The above image is the result of combining these for maximum depth.
The FGS doesn't use color filters. Instead, this false color image uses red to represent the faintest objects and white to represent the brightest, with orange and yellow between. This deprives scientists of some of the important information the JWST's other instruments provide. For example, color reveals galaxies' ages, with younger ones being more blue from an abundance of hot young stars, while older galaxies are dominated by red stars.
On the right is the star 2MASS 16235798+2826079. It's so much brighter than anything else that its spikes dominate the image, despite the star itself being out of the field of view. As a demonstration of the JWST's immense power, this star has a magnitude of 9.3, meaning it is just visible under dark skies with a good pair of binoculars. At less than half the brightness of Neptune, it would be just another faint dot in a backyard telescope.
All of the JWST's instruments are now fully verified, other than the Near-Infrared Camera, which has one remaining mode under testing.
Anyone made suitably excited by this image has to wait another four days for the first full-color pictures to be released on July 12. The list of initial targets will be released later today, and you can watch their publication live at Webb First Images or on social media at 10:30 am EDT (2:30 pm UTC).