Ahead of NASA’s release of the James Webb Space Telescope’s first full-colour images and spectroscopic data on July 12, we may finally have hints of what the first few operational images will look like. The first pictures from the $10 billion-dollar deep-space observatory will include “the deepest image of our universe that has ever been taken,” according to NASA administrator Bill Nelson.
Webb’s images will be so much sharper than anything we’ve seen from previous infrared telescopes, like NASA’s now-decommissioned Spitzer Space Telescope.
NASA has not specified which early-universe objects Webb will focus on. However, the space agency’s administrator suggested that the image will show some of the earliest objects yet seen. This should mean that we would see objects older than the ones seen in the Hubble Space Telescope’s series of deep image fields that show galaxies that formed as little as a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.
Come Sunday, July 12, and the Webb team will release an unconfirmed number of full-color images based on observations by two of Webb’s four science instruments: the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI).
Webb’s first round of observations will target specific cosmic objects drawn from a list written months ago. The list was composed by a committee that included members of NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Space Telescope Science Institute. The goal is to show off the capabilities of each of Webb’s four instruments, while also demonstrating each of the telescope’s main science themes:
The early universe
The evolution of galaxies
The lifecycle of stars
While the list of targets was prepared in advance, the Webb team had no way to predict what part of the sky the telescope would be able to see when the big day arrived. The final list of targets, which we’ll see in the first full-color images on July 12, were selected from the larger list because they’re currently in the Webb’s field of view.
The James Webb Space Telescope launched in December 2021, and the observatory has spent the last six months preparing for its July 12 debut. That process included deployment, aligning the telescope’s mirrors, and calibrating and testing all four science instruments.
In the last few months, the Webb has sent home a few preliminary images, including one of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, and of nearby bright stars. While pretty, these were taken to verify that its mirrors were aligned properly. They were the space telescope equivalent of quick test snapshots, not the full-colour, detailed images the Webb team will release on July 12.