NASA will release the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope taken with its full power — in full color, in addition to spectroscopic data — on July 12, 2022.
If you miss this, you're missing the sight of the century. So tune in on NASA's live stream (featured below), when the day comes.
The full power of the James Webb Space Telescope unleashed
The James Webb Space Telescope has undergone a six-month period of intense preparation since it arrived at its final position, orbiting the second Lagrange Point (L2) beyond the Earth-moon system. This involved calibrating its instruments to the unforgiving environs of deep space, in addition to aligning its mirrors. This was a painstaking process, and took years of advance planning (not to mention new technology).
We've received several test images from Webb as it executed its "warm up" procedures (or, cooling down, in some cases) — but July 12 will bring all efforts to fruition, with a full-power demonstration of the space observatory. "As we near the end of preparing the observatory for science, we are on the precipice of an incredibly exciting period of discovery about our universe," said Program Scientist Eric Smith for NASA's Webb, in a blog post.
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"The release of Webb’s first full-color images will offer a unique moment for us all to stop and marvel at a view humanity has never seen before," added Smith. Of course, it wasn't easy to decide which object in the big black abyssal depths the James Webb Space Telescope should look at first. But after more than five years of preparation — in a collaborative effort between NASA, the ESA, CSA, and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore — the anticipation is visceral.
"Our goals for Webb's first images and data are both to showcase the telescope's powerful instruments and to preview the science mission to come," said Klaus Pontoppidan, an astronomer and project scientist at STScI, in the blog post. "They are sure to deliver a long-awaited 'wow' for astronomers and the public."
But what will Webb reveal with its first full-power images?
After all of Webb's instruments have been fully calibrated, tested, and approved by professional science and engineering teams, the initial images and spectroscopic observations will take place. Then the Webb team will examine a list of targets that were already selected and prioritized by an international committee — and the collection will doubtless be world-historical in ramifications.
However, the James Webb Telescope is so powerful that no one is exactly sure what we'll see in the first images. It's a good problem to have in astronomy. "Of course, there are things we are expecting or hoping to see, but with a new telescope and this new high-resolution infrared data, we just won't know until we see it," said Joseph DePasquale, STScI's lead science visuals developer, in the NASA post.
It should go without saying that Webb could change the nature of astrophysics, astronomy, planetary science — and even our fundamental understanding of the universe as it looks at everything from moving objects in our own solar system, to protoplanets and protoplanetary disks in nearby galaxies, to the center of our Milky Way galaxy, and even primeval black holes and the very edge of the visible universe, only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang kicked off everything we've ever known or been. It's an exciting time to be alive — and Webb will only have one first time. So don't miss it.