After the incredible reaction to its alignment images get ready for astonishment all round as the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) are made public this week.
In a series of carefully planned events NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) will release a set of so-called “first light” images that show-off the space telescope’s true potential.
It’s going to give us a glimpse of what we’ll see during its expected 20+ years in space, during which time it will probably be hit by more meteoroids.
Here’s everything you need to know about Webb’s first image release this week:
When will be see the first images from the Webb telescope?
The all-important date is Tuesday, July 12, 2022. At exactly 10:30 a.m. EDT (14:30 GMT) NASA will release the new Webb images one by one during a televised broadcast from its Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Here’s NASA’s image countdown web page.
Where to see Webb’s first images
The space community is going for all-out media saturation with this—and why not? After all, JWST has cost around $10 billion and been a couple decades in the making. Here are the channels to follow to be the first to see the images:
Schedule for ‘image release day’
- 10:30 a.m. EDT: live coverage of the image release broadcast.
- 12 p.m. EDT: NASA and its partners will hold a joint media briefing at NASA Goddard.
Didn’t we already see Webb’s first images?
No—that was its alignment images in late April 2022, which showed how sharp Webb’s optics were, but didn’t contain much in the way of exciting targets.
What will the first Webb images show?
Yesterday NASA confirmed these five objects will feature in Webb’s first images:
Carina Nebula: one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky, located approximately 7,600 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina.
WASP-96b (spectrum): a giant planet outside our solar system, composed mainly of gas. The planet, located nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, orbits its star every 3.4 days. It has about half the mass of Jupiter, and its discovery was announced in 2014.
Southern Ring Nebula: The Southern Ring planetary nebula – an expanding cloud of gas surrounding a dying star – is 2,000 light-years away from Earth.
Stephan’s Quintet: About 290 million light-years away, Stephan’s Quintet is a group of galaxies located in the constellation Pegasus.
SMACS 0723: an extremely distant and intrinsically faint cluster of ancient galaxies imaged using gravitational lensing.
“We will have a package that will consist of a number of full color images,” said Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist, Space Telescope Science Institute. “Each of them will reveal a different aspects of the infrared Universe in unprecedented detail and sensitivity.”
“We’ll also see an example of how galaxies interact and grow and how these cataclysmic collisions between galaxies drive the process of star formation process that happens in the universe to this day,” said Pontoppidan. “We’ll see a couple of examples from the lifecycle of stars, starting from the birth of stars, where Webb can reveal new young stars emerging from a cloud of gas and dust, to the death of stars, like a dying star, seeding the galaxy with new elements and new dust that may one day become part of new planetary systems.”
“One of those images on July 12 will be the deepest image of our universe that has ever been taken … farther than humanity has ever looked before,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson during a media briefing last week at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Given that the universe is 13.8 billion years old and so far astronomers have been able to look back to around 330 million years we’re going to see something pretty old. It will likely be a gravitationally lensed galaxy. That’s when the gravitational pull from a closer, but aligned galaxy distorts and bends the light from a distant galaxy, causing it to appear misshapen—and magnified.
Webb can indulge in spectroscopy—the splitting of light into its constituent wavelengths—which can tell astronomers what molecules make up an exoplanet’s atmosphere. We know a spectra of an exoplanet is part of the “first light” batch because NASA has said that July 12 will see a “big reveal of Webb’s first full color images and spectroscopic data.” That’s now confirmed to be a spectra of WASP-96b.
What about Webb’s science images?
While the images released on July 12 and aimed at showing the public what to expect over the coming months and year there’s actually another, arguably more important image release on Thursday, July 14. On that day a tranche of the first scientific images will be released to scientists.
“The next exciting phase is really to get the data out to the thousands of scientists around the world so they can dig into it—then we can start a shared journey of discovery,” said Pontoppidan.
Where is the James Webb Space Telescope?
It’s orbiting the Sun. It’s a million miles/1.5 million kilometers from Earth going around our star with us. It’s actually orbiting the second Lagrange point (L2), a place pf gravitational balance between the SUn and Earth where Webb can remain in a fixed position relative to Earth—and therefore not expend much energy. All it needs to do it occasionally use its thrusters to stay in orbit of L2.
How long will the Webb Telescope work for?
Not as much fuel as anticipated was used during the Webb telescope’s journey into space. The upshot is that its 10-year mission is likely to be surpassed. “We can confirm tha we have 20 years of science data capability with the propellant that we have on board,” said Pam Melroy, NASA deputy administrator, last week. “We will be able to do more cutting edge science … and we will go deeper into the science because we will have the opportunity to learn and grow and make new observations.”
What is the James Webb Space Telescope?
Webb is the most ambitious and complex space science telescope ever constructed, with a massive 6.5-meter primary mirror that will be able to detect the faint light of far-away stars and galaxies. It’s designed solely to detect infrared light emitted by distant stars, planets and clouds of gas and dust.
It’s initial 10-year mission Webb will study the solar system, directly image exoplanets, photograph the first galaxies, and explore the mysteries of the origins of the Universe.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.