NASA will show the first full-color images from the Webb Space Telescope

Pulling back the curtain on a photo gallery unlike any other, NASA will soon unveil the first full-color images from its James Webb Space Telescope, a revolutionary instrument designed to peer through space at the dawn of the universe.

This week’s long-awaited unveiling of images and spectroscopic data from the new operational observatory follows a six-month process of remotely deploying various components, aligning mirrors and calibrating instruments.

With Webb now fine-tuned and fully focused, astronomers will embark on a competitive slate of science projects exploring the evolution of galaxies, the life cycles of stars, the atmospheres of distant exoplanets and the moons of our outer solar system.

The first batch of images, which took weeks to process from raw data from the telescope, are expected to offer a fascinating look at what Webb will capture during the science missions ahead.

NASA on Friday released a list of the five celestial objects selected for its demonstration debut of Webb, built for the US space agency by space giant Northrop Grumman Corp.

Among them are two nebulae—huge clouds of gas and dust shot into space by stellar explosions that form nurseries for new stars—and two sets of galaxy clusters.

One of these, according to NASA, involves foreground objects that are so massive that they act as “gravitational lenses,” a visual distortion of space that greatly magnifies light coming from behind to expose even fainter objects that are further and further back in time. How far back and what is shown on camera remains to be seen.

NASA will also present Webb’s first spectrographic analysis of an exoplanet—one roughly half the mass of Jupiter that lies more than 1,100 light-years away—revealing the molecular signatures of filtered light passing through its atmosphere.

“TOUCHED ME AS A SCIENTIST … AS A HUMAN BEING”

All five of Webb’s introductory targets were known to scientists beforehand. One of them, the group of galaxies 290 million light-years from Earth known as the Stefan Quintet, was first discovered in 1877.

But NASA officials promise that the Webbs’ images capture their objects in a whole new light, literally.

“What I saw moved me as a scientist, as an engineer and as a human being,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, who reviewed the images, told reporters during a June 29 briefing.

An unspecified image from the collection will be unveiled Monday night by U.S. President Joe Biden at a White House briefing with NASA chief Bill Nelson, the space agency said Sunday.

The rest will be launched as previously planned in a live broadcast and webcast on Tuesday from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, by NASA and its European and Canadian space agency collaborators.

The $9 billion infrared telescope, the largest and most sophisticated astronomical observatory ever sent into space, was launched on Christmas Day from French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America.

A month later, the 14,000-pound (6,350 kg) instrument reached its gravitational parking spot in solar orbit, orbiting the sun in tandem with Earth nearly 1 million miles from home.

Webb, which looks at its objects mainly in the infrared spectrum, is about 100 times more sensitive than its 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits the Earth from 340 miles (547 km) and operates mainly in optical and ultraviolet wavelengths .

The larger light-gathering surface of Webb’s primary mirror—an array of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal—allows it to observe objects at greater distances, therefore further back in time, than Hubble or any other telescope .

Its infrared sensitivity allows it to detect light sources that would otherwise be hidden in the visible spectrum by dust and gas.
Taken together, these features are expected to transform astronomy, providing the first look at newborn galaxies dating back just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that started the expansion of the known universe about 13.8 billion years ago.

Webb’s instruments also make it ideal for searching for signs of potentially life-supporting atmospheres around dozens of newly documented plants orbiting distant stars, and for observing worlds much closer to home, such as Mars and Saturn’s icy moon Titan.

Besides a number of studies already lined up for Webb, the telescope’s most groundbreaking discoveries may be those yet to come.

Such was the case with Hubble’s surprising discovery through observations of distant supernovae that the expansion of the universe is accelerating rather than slowing down, opening a new field of astrophysics devoted to a mysterious phenomenon scientists call dark energy.

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