On Tuesday, July 12, 2022, astronomy will change dramatically and forever.
On that date, NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) plan to publish the “first light” images of astronomy’s new advanced space observatory – the James Webb Space Telescope (KWST or simply “Web”).
That despite the space observatory was last week hit by a micrometeoroid†
With the arrival of his first color images, Webb – now a million miles away from Earth – will become an instant icon around the world.
“As we near the end of the observatory’s preparation for science, we are on the cusp of an incredibly exciting period of discovery about our universe,” said Eric Smith, Webb program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington. “The release of Webb’s first full-color images will provide a unique moment for all of us to pause and marvel at a view that humanity has never seen before.”
Being in Webb’s wake fully deployedthe successful alignment of its 6.5-meter beryllium mirror – consisting of 18 hexagonal gold-plated segments – and its stunning first alignment photosexpect to see a collection of carefully selected and carefully processed images that Webb’s scientific team is releasing to announce that it has begun its observations.
Webb is up there to search for “cosmic dawn” – the first stars – to study black holes and probe the atmospheres of exoplanets. However, the first batch of images are probably breathtaking images that we can all enjoy.
It’s kind of a tradition for astronomers to celebrate the start of science operations on a new telescope with a selection of images to show exactly what it can do.
Although the alignment images were of targets in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, we don’t know exactly what Webb will be pointed to for these images, but we do know that they are all four scientific instruments:
- NIRCam (Near Infrared Camera): To detect light from the earliest stars and galaxies. It has a coronagraph so it can block out a star’s light, helping it search for planets orbiting nearby stars.
- IRIS (Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph): For ‘first light’ detection of the first stars and for detecting exoplanets as they pass their star.
- NIR specification (Near InfraRed Spectrograph): A spectrometer to scatter light from an object in a spectrum. This instrument can observe 100 objects simultaneously.
- MIRIA (Mid-infrared instrument): A camera and spectrograph that sees light in the mid-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Mainly for better-than-Hubble wide-field astrophotography images.
It’s the MIRI camera that’s likely to give us incredible, better-than-Hubble wide-angle astrophotography images.
“These images will be the culmination of decades of dedication, talent and dreams, but they will also be just the beginning,” Smith said.
NASA is tight-lipped about the exact targets, but expect a few Hubble Vs. Webb images showing exactly what the new infrared space telescope is capable of compared to the obsolete ultraviolet/visible space telescope.
Just as interesting will be the spitzer vs. Webb images comparing the original infrared space telescope to its successor, although it’s also likely we’ll see Webb’s images in conjunction with those two telescopes and those of the Chandra X-ray Observatory†
What we do know is that the package of “first light” images will cover the gamut of what Webb needs to achieve up there, science: the early universe, the evolution of galaxies through time, the life cycle of stars and other worlds. Can we see a direct image of an exoplanet? It is possible.
Webb’s images will appear in color, despite being seen primarily in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum. These longer, redder wavelengths than visible light allow Webb to image gas clouds and penetrate the dust that obscures, for example, the inner regions of most nebulae and many stars in both our own and distant galaxies. Webb will also detect visible light in the red, orange and up to the yellow part of the visible spectrum.
So for the first light images, the NASA image processing team will add color filters to make the images more understandable and comparable.
By the time we see the images, the new space telescope will already be busy the scientific observations of “Cycle 1”†
Webb is the most ambitious and complex space science telescope ever built, with a massive 6.5-meter primary mirror that will be able to detect the faint light of distant stars and galaxies. It is designed solely to detect infrared light emitted from distant stars, planets, and clouds of gas and dust.
It observes from about a million miles from Earth, but will see light from the earliest stars and the earliest galaxies.
I wish you a clear sky and big eyes.
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