We are now just five days away from the public release of the first science images from the James Webb Space Telescope, and the anticipation is quite high. After more than two decades and $10 billion, it’s time for Webb to pay.
Early indications are that it will.
On Wednesday evening, NASA released a “test” image from the telescope which suggests that the science images and data to come will be spectacular. The release of the test photo, which NASA says is “among the deepest images of the universe ever taken”, almost looks like a flex because it’s so good for a throwaway engineering image.
The space agency collected the image in late May during a week-long stability test intended to demonstrate the capabilities of the telescope’s fine guidance sensor. This instrument helps Webb find and lock onto astronomical targets, and it was built by the Canadian Space Agency.
“The resulting engineering test image has rough qualities,” NASA said in a press release. “It was not optimized to be a scientific observation; rather the data was taken to test how well the telescope could stay locked on a target, but it hints at the power of the telescope. It carries some features of the sights Webb produced during his post-launch preparations.Bright stars are distinguished by their six long, well-defined diffraction spikes, an effect due to Webb’s six-sided mirror segments.Beyond stars, galaxies fill almost everything the background.
Most of the objects in this image are not stars, but actually distant galaxies. These are the types of galaxies that astronomers want to study because they will reveal information about the early Universe. Because it was intended for engineering testing only, this image does not use color filters that allow astronomers to gauge the age of galaxies in the image, but does show detailed structure in distant galaxies .
Incidentally, the stability test passed, and Webb recently collected data with all of his scientific instruments turned on and working. We’ll see the fruits of that labor in just five days, starting at 10:30 a.m. ET (2:30 p.m. UTC).