NASA reveals deep space image from James Webb Space Telescope test

NASA has topped the James Webb Space Telescope with another great test image just before the premiere to display the observatory’s first full-color images.

On Thursday, the US space agency revealed a new image that came from one of the massive infrared telescope’s instruments, the Precision Orientation Sensor. NASA carelessly shared the photo via social media to show off the power and clarity of Webb: an almost deep view of the universe in red monochrome.

The surprising teaser came just six days before the agency and its partners, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, planned to release the first batch of real, full-color images on July 12. Although NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has announced that the cache will include the deepest image of the universe ever taken, scientists said that this image – a test of re-engineering the Webb’s precision-guidance sensor – actually breaks the current record for the farthest infrared view of the universe.

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To some people, the new shot (at the top of this story) might not seem like anything impressive — at best, maybe sesame seeds on a hamburger bun or mosquitoes draped in a car windshield. But what they’re looking at is an abyss: Behind a handful of bright stars with giant ripples of light are galaxies full of solar systems.

That’s right: each one of those little dots can contain hundreds of billions stars and planets. Within that single frame are thousands of faint galaxies, according to the telescope team, many of them in the distant, distant universe. In astronomy, looking further translates to observing the past because light and other forms of radiation take longer to reach us.

Do you feel small yet?

As Jane Rigby, a project scientist at NASA, once said during the observatory’s early calibration tests, “There’s no way Webb could look… at any point in the sky and not go incredibly deep.”

This is true in this case. The main function of the precision guidance sensor, built by Canada, is to guide and stick to cosmic goals. Taking pictures is just an added advantage. When the image was taken, engineers were testing the telescope’s ability to “roll to one side like an airplane in flight, lock onto a single star and twist,” as NASA explained in a blog post. This may result in a visual display of some recent files Top Gun: Maverick moviegoers.

The image is the result of 72 exposures over a period of 32 hours, placed on top of each other. The jagged edges of the image are due to the overlapping frames, according to the post.

“There is no way Webb could look… at any point in the sky and not go incredibly deep.”

Webb was launched into space on Christmas morning six months ago, and will spot some of the oldest and faintest light in the universe. Astronomers predict that Webb science will usher in a golden age in our understanding of the universe.

The powerful $10 billion infrared telescope will study less than 300 million years after the Big Bang, when many of the first stars and galaxies were born. Scientists will also use it to look at the atmospheres of other worlds. Discoveries of water and methane, for example – some of the major components of life – could be signs of potentially life-friendly environments.

The powerful $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope will study less than 300 million years after the Big Bang, when many of the first stars and galaxies were born.
credit: NASA

NASA officials confirmed Thursday that the test shot is still “rough around the edges,” and won’t hold a candle to the quality of the images soon to appear on July 12. These are not full color and will not stand up to the required standard for scientific analysis, they said.

The engineers refined the data in a red filter, just as they had done with previous test images, to show contrast. The sharp, hexagonal bulges protruding from the stars are the result of Webb’s hexagonal mirror segments. This affects the way the light travels, causing diffraction.

The stars also appear to have holes in their centers, a feature that won’t be present in upcoming photos, according to the Webb team. The engineers said the holes are there because the exposures lack “frequency.”

According to NASA, “the frequency occurs when the telescope shifts slightly between each exposure.” “The centers of bright stars appear black because they saturate the Webb detectors, and the telescope’s orientation on exposures did not change to capture the center from different pixels within the camera’s detectors.”

The upcoming images and science data will be released during a broadcast event starting at 10:30 a.m. ET on July 12 from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The public can watch live coverage on NASA TV.

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