We now have a date for our first real images of NASA’s next-generation observatory.
After six months of commissioning in space, NASA will release the first operational images taken by the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope on July 12, according to an agency statement released Wednesday (June 1). While Webb officials are still keeping those early imaging targets secret, the agency pointed out that it took five years of work between the various participating space agencies to decide what those early images will show.
“Our goals for the first images and data from Webb are both to showcase the telescope’s powerful instruments and to preview the science mission ahead,” said astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, in the press release. (opens in a new tab). “They are sure to deliver a long-awaited ‘wow’ for astronomers and the public alike.”
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Although the Webb team has already shared several images, these were all interim alignment images taken to assess the capabilities of the observatory. The July 12 images will arrive after each instrument has been “calibrated, tested and given the green light by its science and engineering team”, according to NASA.
NASA pointed out that despite all the months of careful alignment since Webb launched on Dec. 25, 2021, it’s hard to predict exactly what the new images will look like. The high-resolution infrared view of the universe will be unique, as Webb operates in deep space and has an 18-segment hexagonal mirror that collects sharp images believed to show the earliest galaxies, early in the history of the universe.
The new images will be available in color and will be meant to show the breadth of Webb’s scientific abilities, NASA said. This means that not only will images be included, but also spectroscopic data to show elemental composition and other information astronomers can infer from the spectrum of light.
“The first set of material images will highlight the scientific themes that inspired the mission and will be central to its work: the early universe, the evolution of galaxies through time, the life cycle of stars and other worlds,” NASA said. “All of Webb’s commissioning data — data taken during telescope alignment and instrument preparation — will also be made public.”
While we wait for the big reveal, we know what Webb will be focusing on in its first year of operation, called Cycle 1. The agency has already released (opens in a new tab) the list of planned investigations following a competition within the scientific community to determine the work with the highest priority, a process that will be repeated each year of the life of the observatory.
“As we near the end of the observatory’s readiness for science, we are on the brink of an incredibly exciting time of discovery about our universe,” Eric Smith, Webb program scientist at NASA, said in the press release. “These images will be the culmination of decades of dedication, talent and dreams, but it will also be just the beginning.”