It’s now been six months since the Webb Space Telescope launched from French Guiana towards its observation point in space, one million miles from us. Now the telescope’s first colour images are finally being taken; they will be released to the public on July 12.
In a press conference today, NASA officials offered a couple tantalising details about the images and gave some updates on the Webb’s performance. The team announced that the upcoming release will include the deepest-ever image of the universe, and at least one exoplanet’s spectra will be included in the images.
“It may answer some questions that we have: Where do we come from? What more is out there? Who are we?,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson, in the press conference. “In many ways, Webb’s journey has only just begun.”
When Webb launched on December 25, 2021, it was furled up in an Ariane 5 rocket like a very expensive bat in a crawlspace. It took a month to reach L2, where it will remain for its tenure, and was even imaged there itself by a telescope in Italy.
Since then, the public has been getting a steady stream of information about the alignment of the Webb’s mirrors and the commissioning of the telescope’s scientific instruments. That culminated in the remarkably sharp image of the Large Magellanic Cloud captured by Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) in May.
That was a test image, but the images coming July 12 will be the real deal: the first pictures of Webb science targets, as well as the first photos processed into full colour. Along with those first images, the Webb team is releasing the results of 120 hours of observations, a delightful first course for astronomers eager to peer deeper into the cosmos than ever before.
We don’t yet know what exoplanet will be imaged, but we do know why objects like it are being looked at. The atmospheric chemistry of exoplanets helps planetary scientists understand the true diversity of distant worlds, and astrobiologists can look for water vapour and gasses that could indicate the presence of life.
Webb’s images will take stock of the worlds out there in grand detail, and can work off the running list of exoplanets produced by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the Kepler spacecraft, among other missions.
The precision of Webb’s launch and the course corrections the telescope had to take cannot be understated; enough fuel was saved in the process that Webb should be able to operate for at least 20 years.
Webb will periodically go through debris fields, and even this month was hit by a micrometeoroid, but the Webb team can orient the telescope to protect it from the rocky world out there. And it’ll need to be hardy; after years of planning, and building, and arguing for funding — and above all, waiting — Webb is about to meet its moment.