JWST’s first images arrive on July 12

We are about to reach a milestone that many thought we would never reach. After years of bickering, cost overruns, cancellation threats and lobbying from the scientific community, the James Webb Space Telescope is just weeks away from its first images.

The Hubble Space Telescope barely got started when scientists started thinking about the telescope that would come next. In the early 1990s, serious planning for the JWST began, with an initial launch date set for 2007. At that time, the budget was set at $500 million.

The design evolved, and in 2005 there was a major redesign. There were complications, reviews, and the Senate at one point threatened to cancel the entire project due to the poor financial performance of the project. But there was a concerted lobbying effort and the project continued. The scientific rewards were too tempting to let the project fail.

The James Webb Space Telescope inside a clean room at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.  Years before its launch, its gold-coated segmented mirror was already an icon in the space community.  Credit: NASA/JSC
The James Webb Space Telescope inside a clean room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Years before its launch, its gold-coated segmented mirror was already an icon in the space community. Credit: NASA/JSC

We are halfway through 2022 and about to get our first images. A whole generation of astronomers grew up waiting for the JWST to finally launch. And while the project is a cooperative effort between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency, it feels like the whole world has a stake in the telescope’s success.

After a long period of testing and calibration, we are on the eve of a new era of discovery.

“As we near the end of the observatory’s preparation for science, we are on the brink of an incredibly exciting time of discovery about our universe. The release of Webb’s first color images will give us all a moment unique to stop and marvel at a sight mankind has never seen before,” said Webb Program Scientist Eric Smith at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These images will be the culmination of decades of dedicated , talent and dreams – but they will also be just the beginning.”

The anticipation has been building for years, and an international committee of scientists has created a list of initial goals for the JWST. The first images are designed to show off the telescope’s powerful capabilities. They will also whet our appetite for in-depth science to follow.

“Our goals for the first images and data from Webb are both to showcase the telescope’s powerful instruments and to preview the science mission ahead,” said astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at STScI. “They are sure to deliver a long-awaited ‘wow’ for astronomers and the public alike.”

This image of part of the Large Magellanic Cloud compares the Spitzer Space Telescope (RIP) to a simulated image from the JWST.  The detail is stunning.  Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (left), NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI (right)
This image of part of the Large Magellanic Cloud compares the Spitzer Space Telescope (RIP) to a simulated image from the JWST. The detail is stunning. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (left), NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI (right)

The JWST is so powerful that even the people who operate it don’t know what to expect. They know the pictures will be amazing, but they can’t tell us in advance how amazing they are. “Of course, there are things we’re waiting and hoping to see, but with a new telescope and this new high-resolution infrared data, we won’t know until we see it,” Joseph DePasquale said. , lead science visuals developer at STScI.

The JWST team will use the first images to highlight the scientific themes behind the mission. These themes are the early universe, the evolution of galaxies through time, the life cycle of stars and other worlds. So whatever your particular space situation, you’re likely to find something to wow you.

This is an artist's rendering of the exoplanet Kepler 62f.  We know thousands of exoplanets but we lack information on their atmospheres.  Kepler 62f might have liquid water, but only if its atmosphere is rich in carbon dioxide.  The James Webb should be able to find out.  Illustration by Artist: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T.  Pyle
This is an artist’s rendering of the exoplanet Kepler 62f. We know thousands of exoplanets, but we lack information about their atmospheres. Kepler 62f might have liquid water, but only if its atmosphere is rich in carbon dioxide. The James Webb should be able to find out. Illustration by Artist: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Once the telescope is up and running, the results of a competitive process will determine what happens next. But as with other telescopes, expect a steady stream of stunning images and published articles. Also expect some of our biggest questions in astronomy, cosmology, and astrophysics to be a bit more open, if not answered.

Like other telescopes and observatories, we can also expect the unexpected. New missions often surprise us with their discoveries, and the JWST will be no different.

After years of waiting, there are only a few weeks left. And if that doesn’t sound too grand, July 12 could herald a new era in space science.

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