NASA Announces Arrival Date of First James Webb Space Telescope Images

The first science images and the first official spectroscopic data from the Webb Space Telescope will be released on July 12.

Webb, the largest and most complex observatory ever launched into space, has undergone a six-month preparation period before it can begin its scientific work, calibrating its instruments to its space environment and aligning its mirrors . This painstaking process, not to mention years of new technology development and mission planning, has evolved into the first images and data: a demonstration of Webb at full capacity, ready to begin its science mission and reveal the infrared universe, reports NASA.

"As we near the end of preparing this observatory for scientific research, we stand at the threshold of an incredibly exciting period of discovery about our universe. The reveal of Webb's first full-color images will provide a unique moment." for all of us to stop and marvel at a sight humanity has never seen before," Eric Smith, Webb's program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington , said in a statement . "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 project more than five years in the making, carried out by an international partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, the latter home to the scientific work and operations of the Webb mission.

"Our goals for the first Webb images and data are to showcase the telescope's powerful instruments and to preview the science mission to come," said astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at STScI. "Surely, they will produce a long-awaited impact on astronomers and the public."

Once each of Webb's instruments has been calibrated and tested, and given the green light by its science and engineering teams, the first images and spectroscopic observations will be obtained. These teams will proceed to follow a list of targets that have been shortlisted and ranked by an international committee to wield Webb's powerful abilities. The production team will then receive the data from the scientists operating Webb's instruments and process it into images for astronomers and for the public.

"I feel very privileged to be a part of this," said Alyssa Pagan, science imaging developer at STScI. "Typically, the process from raw telescope data to the final, clean image that communicates scientific information about the universe can take anywhere from weeks to a month," Pagan said.

While the careful planning of Webb's first full-color images has been underway for a long time, the new telescope is so powerful that it's hard to predict exactly what the first images will look like. "Of course, there are things that we anticipate and hope to see, but with a new telescope and with this new high-resolution infrared data, we just won't know until we see it ," said Joseph DePasquale, lead science imaging developer for STScI.

The first test and alignment images have already demonstrated the unprecedented sharpness of Webb's infrared sight. However, these new images will be the first in full color and the first to show off all of Webb's scientific capabilities. In addition to images, Webb will capture spectroscopic data: detailed information that astronomers can interpret from light.

The first package of material images will highlight the scientific topics that inspired the mission and will be the focus of its work: the early universe, the evolution of galaxies through time, the life cycle of stars and other worlds. All data from Webb's start-up -- data obtained as the telescope is aligned and instruments are readied -- will also be made available to the public.

After capturing its first images, Webb's science observations will begin, continuing to explore the mission's key science topics. The teams have already applied, through a competitive process, for time to use the telescope, in what astronomers call their first "cycle," or first year of observations. Observations are carefully timed to make the most efficient use of telescope time.

These observations mark the official start of Webb's general science operations, which is the job it was designed to do. Astronomers will use Webb to observe the infrared universe, analyze the data collected, and publish scientific papers about their discoveries.

Reference(s): NASA

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