First Science-Quality Images from JWST Just Days Away

First Science-Quality Images from JWST Just Days Away

NASA and its partners in the James Webb Space Telescope will release the first science-quality images on July 12. The images are being carefully chosen to showcase the capabilities of the telescope’s four instruments and what they are expected to reveal about the formation and evolution of the universe from its earliest days until now.

The $10 billion JWST is a partnership among NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.  NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the JWST program and will be the venue for a press conference following release of the images at 10:30 am ET next Tuesday. Northrop Grumman is JWST’s prime contractor.

Illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope fully unfolded in space. Credit: NASA/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

These Early Release Observations (EROs) are being carefully chosen to create a “wow” reaction from the public and scientists alike, whetting the appetite for what’s to come over the next 20 years.

Officially JWST has a 5-year design life, but the hope always was that the fuel needed to maintain its location at the Sun-Earth Lagrange Point-2 (SEL-2) would last for at least twice that. Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket put it on such a precise trajectory, however, that it needed less than anticipated fuel to reach SEL-2 and last week NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said during a briefing at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) that JWST is good for at least 20 years.

NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy at the Space Telescope Science Institute, June 29, 2022. Credit: NASA

“I am very happy to report that our estimates of excess fuel capacity on Webb have proven to be correct. So thanks to our partners at Arianespace who did a perfect job of inserting Webb into space with a very high level of precision we can confirm we have 20 years of science data capabilities with the propellant that we have on board.”

STScI operates both JWST and the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble is in its 32nd year of operations, long past its design life. Hubble is in Earth orbit, however, and was visited by five space shuttle crews who installed new systems and instruments giving it new leases on life each time.  JWST is not designed to be serviceable and is a million miles away from Earth, but it is conceivable that robotic systems could emerge in the next two decades that could extend its lifetime even further.

Scientists are eager to have Hubble and JWST operating at the same time. JWST is often characterized as Hubble’s successor, but the telescopes look at the universe in different parts of the spectrum. Hubble is primarily a visible light (or optical) telescope, with some capabilities in the ultraviolet and near infrared. JWST operates entirely in infrared. Its instruments can peer further back in time to when galaxies were forming for the first time and see more clearly than previous infrared space telescopes like NASA’s Spitzer.

Comparison of images of the Large Magellanic Cloud taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope versus the MIRI instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope. Courtesy of ESA.

Hubble and JWST have narrow fields of view. If all goes according to plan, they will be joined by the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope in 2027, another infrared telescope but with a wide field of view (its original name was Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope or WFIRST).

At last week’s briefing, Klaus Pontoppidian, Webb Project Scientist at STScI, said scientists would love to have all three telescopes operating simultaneously. “Ideally, as one makes discoveries we’ll want to point the other two to the same targets.” The three are synergistic. “Roman especially is a discovery machine in very large areas of the sky whereas Hubble and Webb go deep on individual targets or smaller areas.” It will be “fun to see the very rare extremes of the universe that Roman will discover and then look at them in the optical and ultraviolet with Hubble and in the infrared with Webb.”

But for now the focus is JWST.

Launched on Christmas Day it already has survived its month-long journey to SEL-2, an intensely complex deployment sequence, and months of commissioning to get the primary and secondary mirrors properly aligned and the four instruments chilled to their very cold operating temperatures.

While the purpose of this image was to focus on the bright star at the center for alignment evaluation, Webb’s optics and NIRCam are so sensitive that the galaxies and stars seen in the background show up. At this stage of Webb’s mirror alignment, known as “fine phasing,” each of the primary mirror segments have been adjusted to produce one unified image of the same star using only the NIRCam instrument. This image of the star, which is called 2MASS J17554042+6551277, uses a red filter to optimize visual contrast. Image and caption credits: NASA/STScI

The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) provided jointly by NASA and the European Consortium (led by the U.K.) with ESA must be kept at 7 Kelvin (-447°F/-266°C). The Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) provided by the University of Arizona, the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) provided by ESA, and Fine Guidance Sensor/Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS) provided by CSA operate at 40 K (-387°F/-233°C).

This Fine Guidance Sensor engineering test image was acquired in parallel with NIRCam imaging of the star HD147980 over a period of eight days at the beginning of May. This engineering image represents a total of 32 hours of exposure time at several overlapping pointings of the Guider 2 channel. The observations were not optimized for detection of faint objects, but nevertheless the image captures extremely faint objects and is, for now, the deepest image of the infrared sky. Credit: NASA, CSA, and FGS team.

The test imagery released so far is amazing by itself and only a hint of what’s to come starting Tuesday.

As eager as astronomers are to get the data, not all are happy with the telescope’s name.

James Webb was Administrator of NASA during the 1960s and is credited with the success of the Apollo program to land Americans on the Moon. A career public administrator, he previously held many positions in government including at the State Department in the 1950s. Sean O’Keefe, another career public administrator who headed NASA in the early 2000s when JWST was getting underway, named it in Webb’s honor on the basis that Webb fought to ensure that NASA’s science programs also thrived during that era.

But scientists did not have a chance to weigh in on the telescope’s name and in recent years it has become controversial. Some of the criticism is of Webb himself, some of how NASA picked the name, and some of how NASA has responded to requests that the name be reconsidered.

Webb’s critics assert that he implemented anti-homosexual personnel policies when he was at the State Department during the Lavender Scare era of the 1950s and when he was at NASA that is antithetical to today’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Others call Webb a Cold Warrior citing his work on psychological warfare, which they consider contrary to JWST’s international character.

As for NASA, they criticize the agency for not following its own naming procedures, for being dismissive of their concerns, and for a lack of transparency.  NASA directed its historian to look into the issues about Webb and decided there was no reason to change the name, but so far has declined to release a report explaining why despite repeated requests from its Astrophysics Advisory Committee and the American Astronomical Society.

The JustSpace Alliance released a video this week making their case for renaming the telescope. Asked whether those arguments might cause NASA to change its mind, a NASA spokesperson provided this response to

NASA’s History Office conducted an exhaustive search through currently accessible archives on James Webb and his career. Our historians also talked to experts who previously researched this topic extensively. NASA found no evidence at this point that warrants changing the name of the telescope.

The NASA historian and a contract historian have successfully completed their research from additional historical archives that were closed due to COVID-19. They are compiling their information now into an update the agency will share.

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