NASA prepares to show what the James Webb Space Telescope is capable of when the space agency releases the first color images of the observatory before beginning science operations revealing the mysteries of the universe.
After Christmas morning launch, the telescope’s 6.5-meter mirror opened and its tennis-court-sized sunshade extended into space. The telescope is now stationed at approximately 1 million kilometers from Earth and, after commissioning, is ready to begin decades of scientific observations.
NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency plan to release the first color images and spectroscopic data from the James Webb Space Telescope on Tuesday, July 12 at 10:30 a.m. ET. The reveal will be streamed live online at NASA.gov and on the agency’s social media platforms.
Take this as a friendly warning that these carefully planned cosmic images will be everywhere next Tuesday.
Already, Webb’s imaging team has shared snippets of Webb’s abilities, indicating that upcoming images will be discussed.
In April, the space agency and its telescope partners released the first image taken after completing “fine phasing” by aligning the optical telescope element.
Webb’s team didn’t choose the star called 2MASS J17554042+655127 for any scientific reason, explained Jane Rigby, NASA’s Webb operations scientist. Yet even though the star was a hundred times fainter than the light a human eye could see, it was blinding to Webb and a testament to the telescope’s sensitivity.
Then in May, Webb’s science team shared an image of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way, used to test the telescope’s mid-infrared or MIRI instrument. The image below shows the same view taken by the now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope infrared camera and then Webb’s MIRI.
“Spitzer has taught us a lot, but it’s like a whole new, incredibly beautiful world,” Marcia Rieke, principal researcher at Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera, said in May.
Ahead of the big reveal, NASA released a list of cosmic targets for early Webb images. According to the space agency, the objects were chosen by an international committee made up of representatives from NASA, ESA, CSA and the Space Telescope Science Institute.
The first color images from the James Webb Space Telescope include the largest and brightest nebulae in the universe, the Carina Nebula, located 7,600 light-years away, and WASP-96b, a gaseous exoplanet about 1,150 years away -Earth light. The South Ring Nebula, an expanding cloud of gas surrounding a dying star, will also be featured in JWST’s first data release. Finally, the Stephan’s Quintet group of compact galaxies, located in the constellation Pegasus, and a cluster of galaxies known as SMACX 0723 will test the observatory’s deep-field vision capabilities.
JWST mission officials say the telescope has enough fuel to continue operations for several decades due to the precise launch trajectory. Its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, continues to operate after more than 30 years in orbit some 300 miles above Earth. NASA astronauts conducted several spacewalks to fix a flaw in Hubble’s primary mirror after early images came back blurry.
The James Webb Space Telescope observatory is about 1 million miles from Earth, meaning a repair mission would be out of the question. Thankfully, Webb’s early footage came back crystal clear.