The image dazzles from a computer screen in the corner of the room: six rays of red-orange light bursting from a shining Milky Way star.
But the most enchanting part of the image – among the public’s first broadcasts from the revolutionary James Webb Space Telescope – lies in the background, where amorphous blobs are truly swirling galaxies.
From a desk across the room at the Baltimore Space Telescope Science Institute, astronomical optics researcher Charles LaJoie zooms in, and even more cloud-like spirals emerge, once hidden in the reach of space.
For the researchers at the department – the center of everything Webb has – the picture is there as a reminder of what is to come. When all of Webb’s 18 mirror segments are completely in line, probably before the end of April, astronomers will be able to look deeper into the cosmos than ever before.
For the astronomers in space, it was expected to see a background of galaxies behind the world’s most powerful telescope. But for the engineers, who had so long focused on building the telescope, it was a “wow moment,” said Lee Feinberg, Webb’s optical telescopic element manager for over 20 years.
“The funny thing about it is: the engineers, when we simulated this thing … we simulated a star without thinking we would see galaxies,” he said.
At the institute, scientists like LaJoie are preparing to take the reins of one of humanity’s most astonishing astronomical exploits. Ever since the telescope’s launch on Christmas Day, the institute has abounded with a rotating crew – from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, from the European Space Agency, from the contractor Northrop Grumman.
Teams from around the world have descended to the building located on the Johns Hopkins University campus to guide the telescope, which is close to 1 million miles away, into orbital harmony and make its instruments ready for discovery.
Once the Webb has cooled enough for its infrared instruments and its mirrors are prepared for sharp observation, Baltimore-based scientists will largely take responsibility for monitoring the vessel and guiding it through a series of scientific studies in the coming years.
The institute already has similar responsibilities for the Hubble Space Telescope, which continues to make observations from Earth’s orbit.
Last month, scientists used Hubble to capture what is believed to be the most distant star ever seen, which they called Earendel. The star is so distant that its light has taken 12.9 billion years to reach Earth, so it looks to astronomers as it was just a billion years after the Big Bang.
Scientists were only able to see the star, which they estimate is 50 times the mass of our sun, due to an unusual cosmic magnifying glass – a neighboring galaxy cluster that distorted the structure of space, so Earendel was brought into view.
Astronomers will have to use Webb’s high sensitivity to infrared light to confirm details of Earendel, as the star is so far away that its light has been “redshifted” as it travels Earth. Webb is likely to be able to look even further away than Earendel – potentially as far back as 100 million years after the Big Bang, when the first stars and galaxies began to form.
At the institute in Baltimore, the tension builds up. In space, where scientists prepare mirror-alignment calculations, next to the computer screen and its incredible array of galaxies, sits a poster charting the course of a fully operational telescope. Scribbled over one of the steps: a note on how to mark the milestone to direct the telescope at its first star: “Champagne.”
“We brought the data down, and when we saw how good it was. … You can see that you’re in focus when you look at a star, and it’s two pixels across. Because if you’re not in focus, that thing is skewed, “Feinberg said.” We could quickly see that it was in good shape and we had a bit of a party. “
It was a stark contrast to the original images that came from Hubble, which revealed a critical error in the mirror that required astronauts to make orbital repairs. Such a repair mission for Webb, far more distant than his predecessor, would be out of the question.
Next, the builders of the telescope, like Feinberg, will pass the baton to Baltimore.
“We have to have a keychain ceremony,” Feinberg joked.
But first, scientists have to wait for the telescope’s middle-infrared instrument, called the MIRI, to cool down to 7 Kelvin, or about 450 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Only then can the telescope’s mirrors get their final alignment so that official astronomical observations can begin.
First comes the “early release observations”, images and results that are curated to showcase the telescope’s possibilities to the general public. They are expected in early July.
For now, what the telescope will capture for early release is a tightly hidden secret, but the idea is “to highlight the telescope’s beautiful image properties, to highlight how the sky looks different in the infrared compared to the visible, to show off the power of the telescope to see faint galaxies, ”said Christine Chen, associate astronomer at the institute.
However, the images will not go directly from the telescope to eager eyes around the world. First, the department’s staff, including science visuals developer Alyssa Pagan, will work to transform the black-and-white images from Webb into rich, full-color depictions of deep space.
Pagan and her team use photo editing software like Photoshop to bring otherwise sad images to life. Light with the shortest wavelength is assigned blue, longer wavelengths are assigned green and the longest wavelengths are assigned red. Then begins the more subjective part of the process, as artists work to neutralize the sky so that celestial bodies are more visible, which white balances a photograph.
“It’s really about exploiting both art and science at the same time and having a balance between the two – making the images very compelling, but also being informed by science,” she said.
Following the early release images, astronomers from around the world will begin using the multibillion-dollar telescope to make their observations. The first year or so of observations is set, though an exact schedule has not been set, said Chen, who also serves as Science Policy Group leader for Webb. The group issues calls for proposals to the scientific community and organizes a peer review network that selects the astronomy teams that will have the opportunity to use Webb to answer their burning questions.
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The next opportunity for proposals may come at the end of this year. Chen said she expects even more applicants – after Webb proved to the world that it really works.
That way, demand for the telescope will likely start to “roll downhill and pick up speed,” she said. And lots of these astronomers will visit the Baltimore Institute for a chance to engage one-on-one with its instrument experts. Web’s unique properties are likely to provide even more reasons to study exoplanets, early galaxies and more, Chen said.
“When you have a new window on the universe that JWST is, you will learn a whole lot of new things about the universe that you had not imagined before, and that will raise more questions,” she said.
Meanwhile, with Webb’s final adjustment on the horizon, engineers like Feinberg are slowly beginning to relax. For him, at least, there is a family vacation on the horizon. But then his eyes will turn to the next revolutionary space telescope in the hope that this time it may take less than two decades to build.
“Part of it, honestly, is the feeling of wanting to pass on not just the telescope to the team here, but to pass on the learning we did 10, 15, 20 years ago, to the next crew,” he said. Feinberg. “And then there’s a little sense of responsibility and also not wanting this to be an isolated one.”
The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has already shared a recommendation. The next big telescope should be an infrared, optical and ultraviolet telescope – a mix between Hubble and Webb in a way – but bigger than Hubble. One focus would be to spot faint planets orbiting very distant stars: a chance to capture signatures of life elsewhere in the universe.
“I use the analogy of hiking Mount Everest,” Feinberg said. “Different teams tried different ways to get up the mountain. But once they reached Everest and knew the trail, it became much easier.”