NASA will soon release the first full-color images from its James Webb Space Telescope, a ground-breaking instrument designed to peer through the cosmos to the beginnings of the universe.
The highly anticipated unveiling of images and spectroscopic data from the newly operational observatory on July 12 comes after a six-month process of remotely unfurling various components, aligning mirrors, and calibrating instruments.
With Webb now fine-tuned and fully focused, astronomers will embark on a competitively selected list of science projects that will investigate the evolution of galaxies, star life cycles, the atmospheres of distant exoplanets, and the moons of our solar system.
The first batch of photos, which took weeks to process from raw telescope data, are expected to provide an intriguing glimpse of what Webb will capture on future science missions.
NASA announced on Friday the five celestial subjects chosen for the Webb showcase debut, which was built for the US space agency by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp.
There are two nebulae and two sets of galaxy clusters among them. Nebulae are enormous clouds of gas and dust blasted into space by stellar explosions that form nurseries for new stars.
According to NASA, one of them features foreground objects that are so massive that they act as “gravitational lenses,” a visual distortion of space that greatly magnifies the light coming from behind them, exposing even fainter objects farther away and further back in time. It remains to be seen how far back and what was captured on camera.
Webb’s first spectrographic analysis of an exoplanet, revealing molecular signatures from patterns of filtered light passing through its atmosphere, will also be published by NASA. In this case, the exoplanet is more than 1,100 light-years away and has roughly half the mass of Jupiter. A light-year is a distance traveled by light in a year – 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km)
Scientists had previously identified all five of the Webb’s introductory targets. Stephan’s Quintet, a galaxy group 290 million light-years away from Earth, was discovered in 1877.
However, NASA officials claim that James Webb Space imagery captures its subjects in a completely new light.
“What I’ve seen has moved me as a scientist, an engineer, and a human being,” NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy said during a news conference on June 29.
The first images, according to Klaus Pontoppidan, a Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, where mission control engineers operate the telescope, will “deliver a long-awaited ‘wow’ for astronomers and the public.”
The $9 billion infrared telescope, the largest and most complex astronomical observatory ever launched into space, took off on Christmas Day from French Guiana on South America’s northeastern coast.
A month later, the 14,000-pound (6,350-kg) instrument arrived in solar orbit, circling the sun with Earth nearly 1 million miles away.
Webb is approximately 100 times more sensitive than its 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits Earth from 340 miles (547 km) away and operates primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.
Webb’s primary mirror, an array of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal, has a larger light-collecting surface than Hubble or any other telescope, allowing it to observe objects at greater distances and thus further back in time.
Because of its infrared sensitivity, it can detect light sources that are otherwise hidden in the visible spectrum by dust and gas.
These features, when combined, are expected to transform astronomy by providing the first glimpse of infant galaxies dating back only 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set the known universe’s expansion in motion an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.
Webb’s instruments also make it ideal for looking for signs of potentially life-sustaining atmospheres around a slew of newly discovered planets orbiting distant stars, as well as observing worlds much closer to homes, such as Mars and Saturn’s icy moon Titan.
Aside from the numerous studies already planned for Webb, the most groundbreaking discoveries may be those that are yet to be discovered.
Such was the case with Hubble’s unexpected discovery, made through observations of distant supernovas, that the expansion of the universe is accelerating rather than slowing, ushering in a new field of astrophysics devoted to a mysterious phenomenon known as dark energy.
The Webb telescope is a NASA-led international collaboration with European and Canadian space agencies.