How the James Webb Telescope's 'early release observations' will go down

We're edging closer to the evolution of astronomy.
Brad Bergan
Artist's depiction of Webb.24K-Production / iStock

It's coming.

Scientists are glowing from the promise of the James Webb Space Telescope — the first image of which displayed a single star, surrounded by countless galaxies from the very early universe.

Without zooming in, they look like amorphous blobs. But for scientists at Baltimore's Space Telescope Science Institute, the image serves as a heavy foreshadowing of the wonders awaiting astronomers, once Webb begins its science missions.

All of the James Webb Telescope's 18 mirrors should be fully aligned by the end of April. And when they are, we'll have a deeper view of the universe than ever before.

Baltimore will soon take the reigns for the James Webb Space Telescope

"The hilarious thing about it is: The engineers, when we simulated this thing ... we simulated a star, never thinking we'd see galaxies," said Webb's Optical Telescope Element Manager Lee Feinberg, in a press release.

Scientists at the Baltimore institute are preparing to take control of Webb's care and scientific operations — and several exciting new scientists are beginning to show up, including people from Northrop Grumman, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and the European Space Agency.

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Together, these teams have come to guide the telescope into its final orbital position, which is already 1 million miles away, and prepped to explore the universe with the most powerful instruments ever launched into deep space.

When the James Webb Space Telescope achieves sufficiently low temperatures — needed so its mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) can snap crisp images of the early universe — the first stellar image from Webb will be rapidly outdone. As of writing the Baltimore-based institute already oversees the activities of the Hubble Space Telescope, which still isn't done transforming our grasp of the cosmos, if you can believe it.

Webb will look to a time 100 million years after the Big Bang

In March 2022, Hubble helped scientists snap an image of what's considered the farthest star ever glimpsed — called Earendel. It's so far away that the light by which we learned of it had traveled for 12.9 billion years to reach Earth, which places its temporal position a mere one billion years following the Big Bang that started it all.

This star was 50 times the sun's mass, but Hubble could only see it thanks to the "warping" effects of a neighboring galaxy cluster's gravitational pull — which worked like a magnifying glass on everything behind it (from our relative position).

Scientists designed Webb for high sensitivity to infrared light, and this will enable it to confirm crucial details about Earendel — especially since its distance is so great that the light by which we view it has "redshifted" substantially. But this won't exhaust Webb's abilities, not by a long shot.

The James Webb Space Telescope will see much farther, possibly all the way back to just 100 million years after the Big Bang — which is when the very first stars and galaxies came into being. And everyone at the Baltimore center is ready to make it happen. Written above one of the phases of Webb's readiness displayed on a poster in the center is a little note about which star the next-gen telescope will use to make its final alignment before the science starts: "Champagne."

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