Very soon, humanity will be able to see the deepest images of the universe that have ever been captured. In two weeks, the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA’s super-expensive and super-powerful deep-space optical imager, will release its first full-color images, and agency officials have suggested today that could be just the beginning.
“This is further than humanity has ever seen before,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a news conference on Wednesday (he was calling because he had tested positive for COVID-19 the night before). “We’re just beginning to understand what Webb can do and what he will do.”
NASA launched James Webb last December; ever since, he has been performing a specialized start-up process that involves delicately adjusting all 18 of his huge mirror segments. A few months ago, NASA shared a “selfie” marking successful operations of the IR camera and primary mirrors. Earlier this month, the agency said the first images from the telescope would be ready for their public debut at 10:30 a.m. ET on July 12.
One aspect of the universe that JWST will reveal is exoplanets, or planets outside of our Solar System, specifically, their atmospheres. This is key to understanding if there are other planets similar to ours in the universe, or if life can be found on planets under atmospheric conditions different from those found on Earth. And Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, confirmed that images of the atmospheric spectrum of an exoplanet will be shared with the public on July 12.
Essentially, James Webb’s extraordinary ability to capture the infrared spectrum means that he will be able to detect small molecules like carbon dioxide. This will allow scientists to really examine whether and how atmospheric compositions shape a planet’s ability for life to emerge and develop.
NASA officials also shared more good news: The agency’s estimates of the telescope’s excess fuel capacity were spot on, and JWST will be able to capture images of space for about 20 years.
“Those 20 years will not only allow us to go deeper into history and time, but we will go deeper into science because we will have the opportunity to learn, grow and make new observations,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy.
JWST has not had an easy journey into deep space. The entire project came very close to not being done, Nelson said, after it began to run out of money and Congress considered canceling it altogether. also faced numerous delays due to technical problems. Then when he got to space, he was quickly struck by a micrometeoroidan event that surely made all NASA officials shudder.
But overall, “it’s been an amazing six months,” Webb project manager Bill Ochs confirmed.