NASA prepares to release the first scientific images from the James Webb Telescope

With the start-up of the James Webb Space Telescope nearly complete, project managers and NASA leadership promise that the telescope's first images will amaze scientists and the public.

During a media event at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) held on June 29, project managers and scientists stated that the telescope is already collecting "early observations" that NASA, together with the Space Agency European and Canadian Space Agency will announce on July 12. These observations take place as engineers finish preparing the telescope for routine science observations, with 15 of its 17 observing modes already in place.

Although Spitzer (launched 2003) was earlier than WISE (launched 2009), it had a larger mirror and a narrower field-of-view. Even the very first JWST image at comparable wavelengths, shown alongside them, can resolve the same features in the same region to an unprecedented precision. This is a preview of the science we’ll get. (Credit: NASA and WISE/SSC/IRAC/STScI, compiled by Andras Gaspar)

The James Webb Telescope and its performance

The technical performance of the JWST continues to exceed expectations . Lee Feinberg, director of elements for the JWST optical telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, explained that the telescope had a requirement that its resolution be limited by diffraction - that is, its sharpness be limited only by the laws of light. of physics - at wavelengths as short as 2 microns. He said that, in fact, the telescope was diffraction limited down to 1.1 microns.

Feinberg attributed this technical performance to several factors, including attention to detail during development and extensive testing. "We knew how important this observatory is. It's potentially the largest and most complex science mission NASA has ever built," he said.

"As a systems engineer, I made sure we had a margin, a performance margin, that we could count on," said Mike Menzel, chief systems engineer for the JWST mission at NASA Goddard.

That margin, he and others say, allows for better performance now and ensures you can meet your specifications even as systems degrade over time. One example is the impact of a micrometeorite on a segment of the mirror in May, which was larger than engineers had modeled during telescope deployment.

"Time will tell if that last impact was just an anomaly ," Menzel said. However, he downplayed the impact, pointing to the telescope's significant margin and the strategies the mission is developing to mitigate such impacts. " Even after that last impact, the telescope is performing magnificently."

Although the James Webb telescope was designed for an operational life of 10 years, Pam Melroy, NASA's deputy administrator, said engineers confirmed that the precision launch provided by the Ariane 5 rocket last December helped conserve fuel. Originally budgeted for trajectory corrections, allowing it to operate at the L-2 Earth-Sun point for 20 years .

Clues about the images that the James Webb will reveal

Scientists are preparing for the upcoming publication of the first scientific observations, which will include color images and spectra. Those observations "will show the world that Webb is, in fact, ready for science, and that he produces excellent and spectacular results," said Klaus Pontoppidan, JWST project scientist at STScI. "It's also to highlight the sheer breadth of science that can be done with Webb and to highlight all four science instruments."

Project scientists have kept the list of objects secret for those initial observations. "It's been a process of years to get to the first images," he said, depending in part on what regions of the sky the telescope might look at when it was ready for those initial observations. "We knew we needed a very long list of targets - more than 70 by the end." That process created a prioritized list of observations when the telescope's instruments were ready.

Although the list remains secret, NASA officials have dropped hints about what will be revealed on July 12. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who participated in the event by phone after testing positive for COVID-19 the night before, said one of them will be "the deepest image of our universe ever taken." , better than several "deep field" observations from the Hubble Space Telescope.

"This is further than humanity has ever looked before," Nelson said. "We're just beginning to understand what Webb can and will be able to do."

Pontoppidan confirmed that scientists will publish the deepest infrared image yet of the universe , but did not quantify how it compares to previous deep-field images.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science, said early observations will also include spectra of an exoplanet , which can help scientists determine the composition of its atmosphere. "We're looking forward to seeing the atmosphere of that particular planet and many more," he said.

Both Melroy and Zurbuchen said they have already seen some of those images that will be revealed at the July 12 event. "What I've seen has moved me ," Melroy said, "as a scientist, as an engineer, and as a human being."


You can get the notification and emails when NASA releases the "Deepest images of the Universe" taken by JWST by just clicking "notify" in the bottom left corner of the video.

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