The first full-color images have been a long time coming. Webb detected its first photons in early February and then saw its first star using all 18 of its primary mirror segments about a week later. Later that month, Webb worked through the second and third phases of seven total mirror alignment phases. A couple of weeks after that, NASA announced that Webb’s optics were working correctly. In late April, the team announced that the telescope was fully aligned, setting the stage for the final series of preparations ahead of full scientific operations.
While instrument testing and calibration have taken months, Webb’s story goes back much further. Before its launch last December, the work on Webb had already taken more than two decades. The project, which has undergone many changes, entered its final design phase in 2011. The project has faced many challenges, and its cost has ballooned to nearly $10B, but here we are, just under 40 days from seeing the first full-color images from the space telescope.
|Screenshot from the Webb Space Telescope website (as of June 3)|
Webb, a partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), is the ‘largest and most complex observatory ever launched into space.’ When the first full-color images and spectroscopic data are released on July 12, we will finally see what the impressive telescope is capable of. So far, all signs point to something very impressive. ‘As we near the end of preparing the observatory for science, we are on the precipice of an incredibly exciting period of discovery about our universe. The release of Webb’s first full-color images will offer a unique moment for us all to stop and marvel at a view humanity has never seen before,’ said Eric Smith, Webb program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. ‘These images will be the culmination of decades of dedication, talent, and dreams – but they will also be just the beginning.’
Deciding what Webb should look at first has been a big project. NASA says that it’s taken an international partnership between NASA, ESA, CSA and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, home of Webb’s science and missions operations, more than five years to make the decision. ‘Our goals for Webb’s first images and data are both to showcase the telescope’s powerful instruments and to preview the science mission to come,’ said astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at STScI. ‘They are sure to deliver a long-awaited ‘wow’ for astronomers and the public.’
|Rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI|
Before the first images are released, the Webb team will finish calibrating and testing the telescope’s instruments. The instruments will presumably pass testing and get the green light, and then the team will then work through a list of preselected targets to ‘exercise Webb’s powerful capabilities.’ The production team will receive the data from Webb’s instrument scientists and then process the data into images for astronomers and for the public to view. Typically, turning raw telescope data into final, clean images takes ‘anywhere from weeks to a month,’ said Alyssa Pagan, a science visuals developer at STScI.
What will the first images look like? NASA writes that it’s hard to predict. ‘Of course, there are things we are expecting and hoping to see, but with a new telescope and this new high-resolution infrared data, we just won’t know until we see it,’ said STScI’s lead science visuals developer Joseph DePasquale. Early alignment imagery shows that Webb’s optics are extremely sharp, so there’s good reason to be excited.
To stay up to date with the James Webb Space Telescope and follow the countdown, follow the Webb Telescope team on Twitter.