The largest space telescope ever built is ready to show us what it’s observed over the past six months. But before NASA gives the world a slideshow of the James Webb Space Telescope’s early cosmic surveys, the White House will provide a brief preview on Monday afternoon.
President Biden will unveil a “deep field” image taken by the observatory. Perhaps the Webb Telescope’s greatest promise is to look at some of the first stars to light up the universe after the Big Bang. While Monday’s snapshot doesn’t do that, it is a testament to the principle of the technique and a hint of what’s to come from scientific instruments that astronomers have been waiting decades to bring online.
When will the picture be published and how can I view it?
The first image will be unveiled by President Biden at 5 p.m. Monday at the White House on NASA television or on the agency’s YouTube channel. The New York Times will also provide a live video feed.
What image are NASA and Biden showing?
On Friday, NASA released a list of five objects Webb recorded with his instruments. But Mr. Biden will only show one of them at the White House on Monday.
The image is dubbed SMACS 0723. It is a patch of sky visible from Earth’s southern hemisphere and frequently visited by Hubble and other telescopes in search of the deep past. It includes a giant cluster of galaxies about four billion light-years from here that astronomers use as a kind of cosmic telescope. The cluster’s enormous gravitational field acts like a lens, distorting and magnifying light from galaxies beyond that would otherwise be too faint and distant to see.
Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope
After traveling almost a million miles to reach a place beyond the moon, the James Webb Space Telescope will spend years observing the cosmos.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Science, described this image as the deepest glimpse yet into the past of our cosmos. Later images will certainly look back even further, he added.
Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona, who led the construction of one of the cameras on the Webb Telescope that captured the image, known as NIRCam, said: “This image won’t hold the ‘deepest’ record for long, but it shows clearly power of this telescope.”
What about the rest of the pictures?
NASA will be showing more images in a live video stream Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time, which you can watch on NASA TV or YouTube. They are on display at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The images represent a sightseeing tour of the universe painted in colors no human eye has seen – the invisible rays of infrared, or thermal radiation. A small team of astronomers and science experts chose the images to demonstrate the power of the new telescope and blow the public’s socks off. Among the cosmic images are old friends of amateur and professional astronomers, now seen in new infrared guises.
There’s the Southern Ring Nebula, a shell of gas being expelled from a dying star about 2,000 light-years from here, and the Carina Nebula, a vast swirling expanse of gas and stars, including some of the most massive and potentially explosive star systems in the world’s Milky Way.
Another well-known astronomical scene is Stephan’s Quintet, a dense cluster of galaxies about 290 million light-years from here in the constellation Pegasus.
The team will also publish a detailed spectrum of an exoplanet called WASP-96b, a gas giant half the mass of Jupiter orbiting a star 1,150 light-years away every 3.4 days. Such a spectrum is the kind of detail that could reveal what’s in this world’s atmosphere.
Why did it take so long to share Webb’s first pics?
Going into space on Christmas Day last year was just the first step for the James Webb Space Telescope.
The spacecraft has been orbiting the second Lagrange point, or L2, about a million miles from Earth since January 24. At L2, the gravitational pull of the sun and the earth keeps Webb’s motion around the sun in sync with that of the earth.
Before it got there, parts of the telescope had to be carefully unfolded: the sunshade, which keeps the instruments cold so they can precisely capture faint infrared light, the 18 gold-plated hexagonal parts of the mirror.
The mission was a tense time for the astronomers, engineers and officials watching from Earth. There were 344 individual failures, meaning that if any of the actions didn’t work, the telescope would have ended up as useless space junk. They all worked.
The telescope’s four scientific instruments also had to be turned on. In the months following the telescope’s arrival at L2, its operators carefully aligned the 18 mirrors. In April, the mid-infrared instrument (MIRI), which requires the coldest temperatures, was cooled to minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit and scientists were able to begin a final series of checks on it. Once these and other steps were completed, the science could begin.
How does the Webb compare to the Hubble telescope?
The Webb telescope’s primary mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter compared to Hubble’s, which is 2.4 meters, allowing Webb to collect about seven times as much light and see further into the past.
Another key difference is that Webb is equipped with cameras and other instruments sensitive to infrared or “heat” radiation. The expansion of the universe is causing light that is normally in visible wavelengths to be shifted into longer infrared wavelengths that are normally invisible to the human eye.