On Tuesday, July 12, 2022 astronomy will change profoundly and forever.
On that date NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) plan to publish the “first light” photos from astronomy’s new cutting-edge space observatory — the James Webb Space Telescope (KWST or simply “Webb”) .
That’s despite the space observatory last week being struck by a micrometeoroid.
Upon the arrival of its first full-color images Webb — now in position a million miles from Earth — will become an instant icon around the world.
“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,” said Eric Smith, Webb program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “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.”
In the wake of Webb being fully deployed, a successful alignment of its 21 feet / 6.5 meter beryllium mirror — made up of 18 hexagonal gold-covered segments — and its stunning first alignment photos, expect to see a collection of hand-picked and carefully processed images that Webb’s science team releases to announce that it’s started its observations.
Webb is up there to look for “cosmic dawn” —the first stars — study black holes and examine exoplanet atmospheres. However, the initial batch of images are likely to be jaw-dropping images for all of us to enjoy.
It’s something of a tradition for astronomers to celebrate the start of science operations on a new telescope with a selection of images to showcase exactly what it can do.
While its alignment images were of targets in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, we do not know exactly what Webb will be pointed out for these images, but we do known they will showcase all of its four science instruments:
- NIRCam (Near Infrared Camera): to detect light from the earliest stars and galaxies. It has a coronagraph so it can block a star’s light, which helps in the search for planets orbiting nearby stars.
- IRISS (Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph): for ‘first light’ detection of the first stars, and for detecting exoplanets as they cross their star.
- NIRSpec (Near InfraRed Spectrograph): a spectrometer to disperse light from an object into a spectrum. This instrument can observe 100 objects simultaneously.
- best (Mid-Infrared Instrument): a camera and a spectrograph that sees light in the mid-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Primarily for better-than-Hubble wide-field astrophotography images.
It’s the MIRI camera that will likely give us incredible better-than-Hubble wide-field astrophotography images.
“These images will be the culmination of decades of dedication, talent, and dreams — but they will also be just the beginning,” Smith said.
NASA is being tight-lipped on the exact targets, but expect to see a few Hubble Vs. Webb images that show-off exactly what the new infrared space telescope is capable of when compared to the aging ultra-violet / visible space telescope.
Just as interesting will be the Spitzer vs. Webb images that compare the original infrared space telescope to its successor, though it’s also likely that we’ll see Webb’s images in combination with those two telescopes and those from the Chandra X-ray Observatory.
What we do know is that the package of “first light” images will cover the entire gamut of what Webb is up there to achieve, science — the early universe, the evolution of galaxies through time, the lifecycle of stars and other worlds. Might we see a direct image of an exoplanet? It’s possible.
Webb’s images will be presented in color despite it observing primarily in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum. These longer, redder wavelengths than visible light means Webb can image clouds of gas and pierce through the dust that obscures, for example, the inner regions of most nebulae and a lot of stars in both our own and distant galaxies. Webb will also detect visible light in the red, orange and up to the yellow part of the visible spectrum.
So for the “first light” images NASA’s image processing team will add color filters to help make the images more comprehensible and comparable.
By the time we see the images the new space telescope will already be busy working on its “Cycle 1” scientific observations.
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 is designed solely to detect infrared light emitted by distant stars, planets and clouds of gas and dust.
It’s observing from about a million miles from Earth, but will see light from the first stars and the earliest galaxies.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.