Very soon, humanity will be able to see the deepest images of the universe that have ever been captured. In two weeks, the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) — NASA’s super-expensive and super-powerful optical deep-space imager — will release its first color images, and agency officials suggested today that they may just be the start.
“It’s further than humanity has ever looked before,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a press briefing on Wednesday (he was calling because he had tested positive for COVID -19 the night before). “We are only beginning to understand what Webb can and will do.”
NASA launched James Webb last December; Since then, it has gone through a specialized boot process that involves delicately adjusting its 18 huge mirror segments. A few months ago, NASA shared a “selfie” marking the successful operation of the infrared camera and primary mirrors. Earlier this month, the agency said the first images from the telescope will be ready for public debut at 10:30 a.m. ET on July 12.
One aspect of the universe that JWST will unveil is exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system – specifically, their atmospheres. This is essential to understand if there are other planets similar to ours in the universe, or if life can be found on planets in different atmospheric conditions than those found on Earth. And Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, confirmed that images of an exoplanet’s atmospheric spectrum will be shared with the public on July 12.
Essentially, James Webb’s extraordinary ability to capture the infrared spectrum means he will be able to detect small molecules like carbon dioxide. This will allow scientists to really examine if and how atmospheric compositions shape the ability of life to emerge and thrive on a planet.
NASA officials also shared some other good news: The agency’s estimates for the telescope’s excess fuel capacity were accurate, and JWST will be able to capture images from space for about 20 years.
“Not only will these 20 years allow us to delve deeper into history and time, but we will delve deeper into science because we will have the opportunity to learn, grow and make new observations,” said Pam Melroy, administrator. NASA assistant.
JWST hasn’t had an easy journey to deep space. The whole project almost didn’t happen at all, Nelson said, after it began to run out of money and Congress considered canceling it entirely. He also had to deal with numerous delays due to technical problems. Then, when it reached space, it was quickly sent off by a micrometeoroid, an event that surely sent shivers down the spine of every NASA official.
But overall, “the six months have been incredible,” Webb project manager Bill Ochs confirmed.