On December 25th, 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope launched on an Ariane 5 rocket bound for space. After many years of delays, retesting, and cost overruns, the next-generation observatory made it to orbit without any hiccups or complications. What followed was several weeks of deployment as Webb unfolded its arms, sunshield, primary mirror (consisting of eighteen gold-coated beryllium segments), and secondary mirror. By late January, the space telescope had flown to the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange Point, where it will remain for the entirety of its mission.
For the past six months, Webb has been collecting its “first light,” which consisted of the deepest field images ever taken, galaxies, the Carina Nebula, and a nearby exoplanet and its atmosphere. The majority of these images will be released starting tomorrow morning (Tuesday, July 12th). To give us a taste of what we are in for, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, and other officials revealed the first of these images today during a White House press conference. The entire event was live-streamed by NASA TV and (as promised) was mind-blowing!
The event kicked off shortly after 06:00 PM EDT (03:00 PDT), with VP Harris – who is also the head of the National Space Council (NSC) – providing a historical recap. This included how the deployment of the first orbiting observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, had provided new views into the Universe and how international cooperation had made the James Webb possible. Things then transitioned to Biden thanking Administrator Nelson and lauding the accomplishments of the space agency.
Things then culminated with Nelson presenting the “highest-resolution image of the Universe ever taken by the most powerful telescope ever taken.” Amid applause, Nelson explained how the image was a “tiny speck of the Universe” that featured galaxies and gravitational lensing contained within the space of “a grain of sand held at arm’s length.” This phenomenon occurs when massive objects in space (such as galaxies and galaxy clusters) alter the curvature of spacetime and cause light to bend and become amplified around them.
The number of gravitational lenses in this image is (quite frankly) amazing and can be identified by looking for sections that appear to be “warped.” As Nelson explained, the galaxies in this image appear as they did 13 billion years ago, making them some of the oldest light in the Universe. He added that Webb would be looking even farther back to study the earliest galaxies that existed just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Nelson also remarked that Webb would obtain spectra from exoplanet atmospheres (like the images of WASP-96 b, to be released tomorrow) and how this will aid in the search for life beyond our Solar System.
As he stated in summary, the potential for scientific discovery that Webb will provide is immeasurable. “We will be able to answer questions where we don’t even know what the questions are,” he said. But of course, it will answer questions that astronomers have been pondering for decades, such as the role played by the elusive Dark Matter and Dark Energy, what the center of our galaxy looks like, how star systems form, and whether or not humanity is alone in the Universe.
The other first images will be released starting at 09:45 AM EDT (06:45 AM PDT) tomorrow. These were first shared during a conference with NASA officials on Saturday, July 2nd. According to a NASA statement released shortly thereafter, the experience of witnessing these images for the first time was so powerful that Thomas Zarbuchen – Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) – and others were ]almost “brought to tears”!
Stay tuned! Things are about to get seriously astronomical in here! And you can check out the briefing recap on NASA TV‘s Youtube channel.
Further Reading: NASA