NASA is preparing to show off what the James Webb Space Telescope is capable of when the space agency releases the first color images from the observatory before it begins scientific operations revealing the mysteries of the universe.
After launching on Christmas morning, the telescope’s 6.5-meter mirror opened, and its tennis-court-size sunshield unfolded in space. The telescope is now stationed about 1 million miles from Earth and, after commissioning, is ready to begin science observations decades in the making.
NASA, the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency plan to release the first full-color images and spectroscopic data from the James Webb Space Telescope on Tuesday, July 12, at 10:30 am ET. The reveal will air live online at NASA.gov and across the agency’s social media platforms.
Consider this a friendly warning that these carefully planned cosmic images will be everywhere come Tuesday.
Already, Webb’s imaging team has shared snippets of Webb’s abilities, indicating the coming images will be something to talk about.
In April, the space agency and its telescope partners released the first image taken after completing “fine phasing” aligning the Optical Telescope Element.
Webb’s team didn’t choose the star called 2MASS J17554042+655127 for any scientific reason, explained NASA Webb operations scientist Jane Rigby. Still, even though the star was a hundred times fainter than the light a human eye could see, it was blindingly bright to Webb and a testament to the telescope’s sensitivity.
Then in May, the Webb science team shared an image of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, used to test the telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument or MIRI. The image below shows the same view taken by NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera and then by Webb’s MIRI.
“Spitzer taught us a lot, but this is like a whole new world, just unbelievably beautiful,” Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera principal investigator Marcia Rieke said in May.
Ahead of the big reveal, NASA released a list of the cosmic targets for Webb’s first images. According to the space agency, the objects were chosen by an international committee with representatives from NASA, ESA, CSA and the Space Telescope Science Institute.
The first color images by James Webb Space Telescope include the largest and brightest nebulae in the universe, the Carina Nebula, located 7,600 light-years away, and WASP-96 b, a gas exoplanet about 1,150 light-years away from Earth. The Southern Ring Nebula, an expanding cloud of gas surrounding a dying star, will also be featured in JWST’s first data release. Finally, the compact galaxy group Stephan’s Quintet, located in the Pegasus constellation, and a galaxy cluster known as SMACX 0723 will test the observatory’s deep field view capabilities.
JWST mission managers say the telescope has enough fuel to continue operations for several decades because of the precise launch trajectory. Its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, continues to operate after more than 30 years in orbit about 300 miles above Earth. NASA astronauts conducted several spacewalks to repair a flaw in Hubble’s primary mirror after the first 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 first images came back crystal clear.