The highly anticipated first scientific images from the world’s premier space observatory are not expected until this summer. But recent test images captured by the telescope during its final commissioning phase offer a glimpse of what’s to come.
“These are the most accurate infrared images ever taken by a space telescope,” Michael McElwain, a Web Observatory project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said during a press conference Monday.
But the most striking result came from comparing images taken of the same target by Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument with the infrared array camera of the now retired Spitzer Space Telescope.
Giant Webb’s mirrors and sensitive detectors can capture more details – and allow for more detections – than Spitzer can.
Scientists Studying the two images of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small neighboring galaxy to the larger Milky Way, Webb’s image reveals unprecedented detail of interstellar gas between stars.
Marcia Rickey, the near-infrared webcam principal investigator and University of Arizona professor of astronomy, said during the press conference.
“But it’s only after you see the kind of image you’re actually giving that you really take in and go, ‘Wow, just think about what we’re going to learn.'” “Spitzer taught us a lot. It’s a whole new world.”
Close to the starting line
Webb is now in the final stage of preparation before he is ready to begin making scientific observations.
“I like to call this a home extension,” McElwain said. “We had about 1,000 activities planned for the startup, and only about 200 activities left to complete.”
Webb’s instruments go through final checks and calibrations as the telescope team on the ground evaluates the performance of each instrument to make sure it’s ready for proper data collection.
Each instrument contains about four or five scientific modes, each of which needs to meet specific criteria. One of Webb’s special modes includes tracking a moving target, which is especially useful for scientists who want to study objects on the icy reaches of our solar system as they orbit the sun.
“When this stage is complete, we will be ready to transfer the scientific tools to the universe,” McElwain said.
The first Web images of the universe, called Early Launch Observations, or EROs, are expected to appear in mid-July, Klaus Pontopedan, a Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said during the press conference. He said a more precise date would be announced at a later time.
Pontopedan said these “fantastic color photos” will show Webb is a fully functional and celebratory start to “many years of science”.
Webb’s exact targets were not revealed for these first images because the telescope team didn’t want to spoil the surprise. These goals can change as the team approaches the photo shoot.
The first pictures will look like what We used to see who Pontopedan said that the Hubble Space Telescope in terms of aesthetic quality.
“Astronomy will never be the same again once we see what (Webb) can do with these first observations,” Christopher Evans, ESA’s Webb project scientist, said during the press conference.