The James Webb Space Telescope: Prepare for a New Way To See the Universe

Webb Telescope L2 Flyby

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the next of NASA’s Great Observatories; following in the line of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma-ray Observatory, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. JWST combines the qualities of two of its predecessors, observing in infrared light, like Spitzer, with fine resolution, like Hubble. Credit: NASA, SkyWorks Digital, Northrop Grumman, STScI

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is finally ready to do science – and it’s seeing the universe more clearly than even its own engineers hoped for.

NASA is scheduled to release the first images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope on July 12, 2022. They’ll mark the beginning of the next era in astronomy as Webb – the largest space telescope ever built – begins collecting scientific data that will help answer questions about the earliest moments of the universe and allow astronomers to study exoplanets in greater detail than ever before. But it has taken nearly eight months of travel, setup, testing, and calibration to make sure this most valuable of telescopes is ready for prime time. Marcia Rieke, an astronomer at the University of Arizona and the scientist in charge of one of Webb’s four cameras, explains what she and her colleagues have been doing to get this telescope up and running.

1. What’s happened since the telescope launched?

After the successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope on December 25, 2021, the team began the long process of moving the telescope into its final orbital position, unfolding the telescope and – as everything cooledcalibrating the cameras and sensors onboard.

The launch went as smoothly as a rocket launch can go. One of the first things my colleagues at NASA noticed was that the telescope had more remaining fuel onboard than predicted to make future adjustments to its orbit. This will allow Webb to operate for much longer than the mission’s initial 10-year goal.

The first task during Webb’s monthlong journey to its final location in orbit was to unfold the telescope. This went along without any hitches, starting with the white-knuckle deployment of the sun shield that helps cool the telescope, followed by the alignment of the mirrors and the turning on of sensors.

Once the sun shield was open, our team began monitoring the temperatures of the four cameras and spectrometers onboard, waiting for them to reach temperatures low enough so that we could start testing each of the 17 different modes in which the instruments can operate.


The NIRCam, seen here, will measure infrared light from extremely distant and old galaxies. It was the first instrument to go online and helped align the 18 mirror segments. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

2. What did you test first?

The cameras on Webb cooled just as the engineers predicted, and the first instrument the team turned on was the Near Infrared Camera – or NIRCam. NIRCam is designed to study the faint infrared light produced by the oldest stars or galaxies in the universe. But before it could do that, NIRCam had to help align the 18 individual segments of Webb’s mirror.

Once NIRCam cooled to minus 280 F (-173 C), it was cold enough to start detecting light reflecting off of Webb’s mirror segments and produce the telescope’s first images. The NIRCam team was ecstatic when the first light image arrived. We were in business!

These images showed that the mirror segments were all pointing at a relatively small area of the sky, and the alignment was much better than the worst-case scenarios we had planned for.

Webb’s Fine Guidance Sensor also went into operation at this time. This sensor helps keep the telescope pointing steadily at a target – much like image stabilization in consumer digital cameras. Using the star HD84800 as a reference point, my colleagues on the NIRCam team helped dial in the alignment of the mirror segments until it was virtually perfect, far better than the minimum required for a successful mission.

3. What sensors came alive next?

As the mirror alignment wrapped up on March 11, the Near Infrared Spectrograph – NIRSpec – and the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph – NIRISS – finished cooling and joined the party.

NIRSpec is designed to measure the strength of different wavelengths of light coming from a target. This information can reveal the composition and temperature of distant stars and galaxies. NIRSpec does this by looking at its target object through a slit that keeps other light out.

NIRSpec has multiple slits that allow it to look at 100 objects at once. Team members began by testing the multiple targets mode, commanding the slits to open and close, and they confirmed that the slits were responding correctly to commands. Future steps will measure exactly where the slits are pointing and check that multiple targets can be observed simultaneously.

NIRISS is a slitless spectrograph that will also break light into its different wavelengths, but it is better at observing all the objects in a field, not just ones on slits. It has several modes, including two that are designed specifically for studying exoplanets particularly close to their parent stars.

So far, the instrument checks and calibrations have been proceeding smoothly, and the results show that both NIRSpec and NIRISS will deliver even better data than engineers predicted before launch.

Webb MIRI and Spitzer Comparison Image

The MIRI camera, image on the right, allows astronomers to see through dust clouds with incredible sharpness compared with previous telescopes like the the Spitzer Space Telescope, which produced the image on the left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (left), NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI (right)

4. What was the last instrument to turn on?

The final instrument to boot up on Webb was the Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI. MIRI is designed to take photos of distant or newly formed galaxies as well as faint, small objects like asteroids. This sensor detects the longest wavelengths of Webb’s instruments and must be kept at minus 449 F (-267 C) – just 11 degrees F (6 degrees C) above absolute zero. If it were any warmer, the detectors would pick up only the heat from the instrument itself, not the interesting objects out in space. MIRI has its own cooling system, which needed extra time to become fully operational before the instrument could be turned on.

Radio astronomers have found hints that there are galaxies completely hidden by dust and undetectable by telescopes like Hubble that capture wavelengths of light similar to those visible to the human eye. The extremely cold temperatures allow MIRI to be incredibly sensitive to light in the mid-infrared range which can pass through dust more easily. When this sensitivity is combined with Webb’s large mirror, it allows MIRI to penetrate these dust clouds and reveal the stars and structures in such galaxies for the first time.

5. What’s next for Webb?

As of June 15, 2022, all of Webb’s instruments are on and have taken their first images. Additionally, four imaging modes, three time series modes, and three spectroscopic modes have been tested and certified, leaving just three to go.

On July 12, NASA plans to release a suite of teaser observations that illustrate Webb’s capabilities. These will show the beauty of Webb imagery and also give astronomers a real taste of the quality of data they will receive.

After July 12, the James Webb Space Telescope will start working full time on its science mission. The detailed schedule for the coming year hasn’t yet been released, but astronomers across the world are eagerly waiting to get the first data back from the most powerful space telescope ever built.

Written by Marcia Rieke, Regents Professor of Astronomy, University of Arizona.

This article was first published in The Conversation.The Conversation

26 Comments on "The James Webb Space Telescope: Prepare for a New Way To See the Universe"

  1. Enough with the “is going to be” teasers already.

    Show us what you got!

    Why do the PHBs in control of a device that has cost so many taxpayer dollars feel the need, much less the right, to hold back even test images from the public?

    • The data doesn’t come out as images. They data is made into images. That’s why the first picture is about a month away.

    • This is my sentiment as well. When they requested funding, and more funding and even more funding. The taxpayer has no option to present ‘teasers’. I can appreciate that data needs to be received, interpreted and massaged; but, to tease the taxpayer is inexcusable.

    • ThatAnnoyingGuy | June 22, 2022 at 1:02 am | Reply

      You are such a morron! If you really want to know most of the tax money that you gave is still you who used them, they went into the streets you have in your area, in infrastructure, because actually you care just about you sounding like “hey I’m a taxpayer and I’m entitled to see these images for my entertainment,before you do anything else! I order you!” Exactly that’s how you sound in my head… So get with your feet down on the ground dear taxpayer because you aren’t the only one and for entertainment purpose, we all agreed long time ago that this come after research purposes…

  2. Jim Hugh Thorn | June 17, 2022 at 11:55 am | Reply

    I have lived to see first person in space. Now I am excited to see edge of Universe.

  3. Common sense doesn't get decieved | June 17, 2022 at 5:45 pm | Reply

    What a scam. The data has to be made into an image? So the image can be whatever they want it to be or to look like cuz who really knows what image the so called data is supposed to be or represent? Does anyone know how to convert data into the actual image it’s even looking at? And why would it’s cameras be gathering data instead of an image? It couldn’t be so they can make the image and story be any way they want it to be or to sound right? The amount of tax money wasted on space does not contribute to the amount of worthwhile information or pictures the taxpayers get back. All while nasa can’t pass the van Allen radiation belt right? All it proves is there’s suckers and scammers.

  4. Even if these are direct images, you have to wonder what is being obscured by the enormous spikes coming off the closer, brighter stars; not to mention all the spikes from all the other bright objects. Six large spikes and two smaller ones coming from each and every imaged pixel.

    These spikes extend significantly farther that the out-of-focus halos around the stars in the comparison image with the Spitzer telescope.

    When every single pixel of every processed image has to be manipulated just to view it, how much actual detail is going to be left?

    • Hey buddy, what r u thinking man! I suppose you don’t believe in Santa either, have a little faith, a little imagination,have a goddamn kit Kat but whatever you do lighten the hell up with the conspiracy theory crap will ya, it gets very old-very fast scrooge!!!!!!

  5. Tina Pettigrew | June 18, 2022 at 6:47 am | Reply

    Be patient we’ve been waiting a very long time for this!

    • Hey buddy, what r u thinking man! I suppose you don’t believe in Santa either, have a little faith, a little imagination,have a goddamn kit Kat but whatever you do lighten the hell up with the conspiracy theory crap will ya, it gets very old-very fast scrooge!!!!!!

    • Saying”be patient we’ve be waiting a long time for this”, is an oxymoron of incredible proportions there honey. I see staying after school hasn’t helped one bit’

  6. “Spikes” in a telescope image of a star are an unavoidable artifact of a reflector scope’s construction as the supports of the secondary mirror diffract the light. But this new image is unquestionably a huge leap in resolution. Look at how many fainter star images are now visible everywhere even between those spikes which in previous images were just a blurry fog. As to the cost, the entire cost of building and operating this scope over 24 years is less than half of what the US spends on beer in a single year. How much should we pay for a time machine that can look back almost to the Big Bang?

    • Hey conspiracy guy I’m gonna tell you something I’m sure you heard a lot from your parents and/or girlfriend or wife and it is a very true statement and carries a lot of weight with us readers as well and that is”you don’t know your @sshole from your elbow”, keep up the good work there Einstein!!!!!

  7. Terry Morton-Rush | June 18, 2022 at 5:03 pm | Reply

    I am eagerly awaiting photos that will show the first stages of the development of the first Galaxies

  8. I’m curious to know if the scope will be able to image the planet orbiting Proxima.

  9. They are going to be some truly legendary and iconic baby pics of our universe without a show of a doubt!!!

  10. They are going to be some truly legendary and iconic baby pics of our universe without a shadow of a doubt!!!

  11. Can they just turn the d@mn thing on or some s***, I wanna see the dam big bang or some s***.. f@#king show the beginning of the universe, wanna see everything pop into existence or some s***

  12. The penny pinchers really ought to get a grip. I live in a country where the ex-government just racked up 1/2 trillion in debt in the last 3 years with nothing to show for it and gave well over $8 billion to big business that turned it straight into profit. The total debt is approx $40,000 per person. This telescope is outstanding value for money.

  13. Jerry Simon Taylor | June 22, 2022 at 4:25 pm | Reply

    I have patiently been waiting for 75 years to find out we are not alone in this universe and that maybe the only think that can save us from the Christians.Keep up the good work.

  14. Terrence Thompson | June 22, 2022 at 10:01 pm | Reply

    That we have managed to successfully, imagine, design, build, launch, and commission the James Web telescope relying entirely appon science and human endeavour, puts walking on water into the also run events!!

  15. Common sense doesn't get deceived | June 30, 2022 at 2:58 pm | Reply

    Ignorance can be proven. What they claim is space and can’t be. Plus I read the article and there was a section to leave a comment just as freely as anyone else could so I did. It wasnt left directly to u. Every person that works on those kinds of projects has a security clearance and through that they are not even allowed to tell anything about it to even the person their married to. Ive known people who worked at places that have stuff to do with that stuff and I’ve heard enough to know it’s all bulls*** and it’s bad for u. So ur telling me that the tax payers get 24 billion dollars worth of info and knowledge and fake pictures every year since that’s nasas yearly budget which comes out to around $65,000,000 a day they spend 65 million a day on what? Bunch of fake useless bulls***. If they weren’t doing nothing what different would this place be? None absolutely no difference at all. And since we can’t do nothing with these fake pictures anyways it’s not like we can jump on rocket and go visit what good does it do for us? None absolutely no good. It’s useless. All it is is a scam set up to take everyone’s money and give them dog c*** in return. And u know it that’s why ur comment to mine is why u said what u said cuz u know. Like how the hell does a rocket or missile launching something to outer space go straight up then curves over? Where the hell is it going to go curving over and going parallel with the earth and always over the ocean a place that’s easy to make sure no one’s able to see the magic fake rocket come back down. Go to nasas website get their pics import them to photo shop and start deleting or undoing and see what u end up with nothing close to what the pic they show u is. Need more? I know people that have seen the real time google Earth imaging and those can zoom in and read the book ur reading right thru the window that’s how powerful they are. We have megapixels for our cameras they have gigapixels. How would I know that? Well u have to know people that know. And that are not ignorant. So let’s all play pretend like Vail cuz paying to play pretend is so not a waste of money.

    • What in the f*ck is this BS? I have a tennis racket and a pillow for you. Take your meds, and some prolixin. Get a dog and teach it some tricks.

      This telescope is going to f*cking show us the big bang, we’re going to see the f*ucking beginning of the universe and see everything pop into existence or some sh*t, and you are saying we waste money, you waste money on cocaine and condoms for whores everyday

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