NASA will reveal the first operational images taken by the $10 billion James Webb Orbit Telescope on July 12 after a half-year of commissioning in space, according to a statement released by the agency on Wednesday.
"Our goals for Webb's first images and data are both to showcase the telescope's powerful instruments and to preview the science mission to come," astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said in the statement. "They are sure to deliver a long-awaited 'wow' for astronomers and the public."
While Webb officials are still keeping the first imaging targets a secret, the agency stressed that deciding what those first images will show involved five years of collaboration among the several participating space agencies.
Although the Webb team has already provided numerous images, these were all preliminary alignment images taken to assess the observatory's capabilities. According to NASA, the images will be released on July 12 when each instrument has been "calibrated, tested, and given the green light by its science and engineering team,"
NASA noted that after months of meticulous alignment since Webb's launch on Dec. 25, 2021, it is difficult to forecast exactly how the new photographs will look. Because Webb works in deep space and features an 18-segment hexagonal mirror that takes precise images predicted to depict the first galaxies early in the universe's existence, the high-resolution infrared view of the universe will be unique.
According to NASA, the new images will be available in full color and will demonstrate the breadth of Webb's science capabilities. This means that in addition to the photos, spectroscopic data will be included to reveal elemental composition and other information that astronomers may deduce from light's spectrum.
"The first images package of materials will highlight the science themes that inspired the mission and will be the focus of its work: the early universe, the evolution of galaxies through time, the lifecycle of stars, and other worlds," NASA said. "All of Webb's commissioning data - the data taken while aligning the telescope and preparing the instruments - will also be made publicly available."
While we wait for the big reveal, we do know what Webb will concentrate on during its first year of operation, known as Cycle 1. The list of planned investigations has already been published by the agency, following a competition among scientists to choose the highest-priority study, a procedure that will be repeated each year of the observatory's lifetime.