We now have a date for our first real images from NASA's next-generation observatory.
Following half a year of commissioning in space, NASA will release the first operational images taken by the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope on July 12, according to an agency statement posted Wednesday (June 1). While Webb officials are still keeping those first imaging targets secret, the agency emphasized that it took five years of work among the several participating space agencies to decide what those first images will show.
"Our goals for Webb's first images and data are both to showcase the telescope's powerful instruments and to preview the science mission to come," astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said in the statement. "They are sure to deliver a long-awaited 'wow' for astronomers and the public."
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Although the Webb team has shared several images already, these were all interim alignment images taken to evaluate the observatory's capabilities. The July 12 images will come after each instrument is "calibrated, tested, and given the green light by its science and engineering team," according to NASA.
NASA emphasized that despite all the months of careful alignment since the Dec. 25, 2021, launch of Webb, it is difficult to predict exactly how the new images will look. The high-resolution infrared view of the universe will be unique, as Webb operates in deep space and has an 18-segment hexagonal mirror that collects sharp images expected to show the first galaxies, early in the history of the universe.
The new images will be available in full color and will be meant to show the breadth of Webb's science capabilities, NASA said. This means the images will not only be included, but also spectroscopic data to show elemental composition and other information that astronomers can infer from the spectrum of light.
"The first images package of materials will highlight the science themes that inspired the mission and will be the focus of its work: the early universe, the evolution of galaxies through time, the lifecycle of stars, and other worlds," NASA said. "All of Webb's commissioning data — the data taken while aligning the telescope and preparing the instruments — will also be made publicly available."
While we wait for the big reveal, we do know what Webb will focus on in its first year of operations, called Cycle 1. The agency has already published the list of planned investigations following a competition within the science community to determine the highest-priority work, a process that will repeat each year of the observatory's lifetime.
“As we near the end of preparing the observatory for science, we are on the precipice of an incredibly exciting period of discovery about our universe," Eric Smith, Webb program scientist at NASA, said in the statement. "These images will be the culmination of decades of dedication, talent, and dreams — but they will also be just the beginning."