The largest space telescope ever built is ready to show us what it’s been looking at for the past six months. But before NASA gives the world a slide show from the James Webb Space Telescope’s early cosmic sightseeing, the White House will provide a brief preview on Monday afternoon.
President Biden is set to unveil a “deep field” image the observatory captured. Perhaps the Webb telescope’s biggest promise is to look at some of the first stars that lit up the universe after the Big Bang. While Monday’s snapshot will not be able to accomplish that, it is a proof of principle of the technique and a hint at what more is to come from scientific instruments that astronomers have waited decades to bring online.
When will the image be revealed, and how can I watch it?
The first image will be revealed Monday at 5 p.m. by President Biden at the White House on NASA TV or the agency’s YouTube channel. The New York Times will also provide a live video feed.
What image is NASA and Biden showing?
On Friday, NASA released a list of five subjects that Webb had recorded with its instruments. But Mr. Biden will only be showing off one of them at the White House on Monday.
The image goes by the name of SMACS 0723. It is a patch of sky visible from the Southern Hemisphere on Earth and often visited by Hubble and other telescopes in search of the deep past. It includes a massive cluster of galaxies about four billion light-years from here that astronomers use as a kind of cosmic telescope. The cluster’s enormous gravitation field acts as a lens, warping and magnifying the light from galaxies behind it that would otherwise be too faint and faraway to see.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for space science, described this image as the deepest view yet into the past of our cosmos. Later images will surely look back even further, he added.
Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona, who led the building of one of the cameras on the Webb telescope the picture was taken with, known as NIRCam, said “This image will not hold the “deepest” record for long but clearly shows the power of this telescope.”
What about the rest of the images?
NASA will show other pictures at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time on Tuesday in a live video stream you can watch on NASA TV or YouTube. They will be shown off at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
The pictures constitute a sightseeing tour of the universe painted in colors no human eye has seen — the invisible rays of infrared, or heat radiation. A small team of astronomers and science outreach experts selected the images to show off the capability of the new telescope and to knock the socks off the public. Among the cosmic images are old friends to astronomers both amateur and professional, who now get to see them in new infrared raiments.
There is the Southern Ring Nebula, a shell of gas ejected from a dying star about 2,000 light-years from here, and the Carina Nebula, a huge swirling expanse of gas and stars including some of the most massive and potentially explosive star systems in the Milky Way.
Yet another familiar astronomical scene is Stephan’s Quintet, a tight cluster of galaxies about 290 million light-years from here in the constellation Pegasus.
The team will also release a detailed spectrum of an exoplanet known as WASP-96b, a gas giant half the mass of Jupiter that circles a star 1,150 light-years from here every 3.4 days. Such a spectrum is the sort of detail that could reveal what is in that world’s atmosphere.
Why has it taken so long to share Webb’s first images?
Getting to space on Christmas Day last year was just the first step for the James Webb Space Telescope.
The spacecraft has been orbiting the second Lagrange point, or L2, about a million miles from Earth since Jan. 24. At L2, the gravitational pulls of the sun and the Earth keep Webb’s motion around the sun in synchronization with Earth’s.
Before it got there, pieces of the telescope had to be carefully unfolded: the sun shield that keeps the instruments cold so it can precisely capture faint infrared light, the 18 gold-plated hexagonal pieces of the mirror.
For the astronomers, engineers and officials watching on Earth, the deployment was a tense time. There were 344 single-point failures, meaning if any of the actions had not worked, the telescope would have ended as useless space junk. They all worked.
The telescope’s four scientific instruments also had to be turned on. In the months following the telescope’s arrival at L2, its operators painstakingly aligned the 18 mirrors. In April, the Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, which requires the coldest temperatures, was cooled to minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit, and scientists could begin a final series of checks on it. Once these and other steps were done, the science could begin.
How does the Webb compare with the Hubble telescope?
The Webb telescope’s primary mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter, compared with Hubble’s, which is 2.4 meters, giving Webb about seven times as much light-gathering capability and thus the ability to see further into the past.
Another crucial difference is that Webb is equipped with cameras and other instruments sensitive to infrared, or “heat,” radiation. The expansion of the universe causes the light that would normally be in wavelengths that are visible to be shifted to longer infrared wavelengths that are normally invisible to human eyes.