When the James Webb Space Telescope launched on Christmas Day last year, we were left with a flurry of conflicting emotions. Awe mixed with bewilderment at what’s to come next. Elation jostled with stress over whether the $10 billion machine would reach its destination. Relief melded with anticipation.
After celebrating a long-awaited liftoff, the world waited patiently for several months to hear back from JWST. And we’re almost on the other side.
Mark your calendars — on June 12, NASA will be releasing the first full-fledged images taken by the gold-plated, exoplanet-hunting, stardust-piercing, black hole-seeking James Webb Space Telescope.
Read on for details about how to tune in.
How to catch the first JWST images
The JWST team will hold a main event to unveil the telescope’s images in real time on Tuesday, July 12, at 7:30 a.m. PT. You can watch it on NASA TV, seen below.
Here’s that time around the world.
- US: 7:30 a.m. PT / 10:30 a.m. ET
- Brazil: 11:30 a.m. (Federal District)
- UK: 3:30 p.m.
- South Africa: 4:30 p.m.
- Russia: 5:30 p.m. (Moscow)
- UAE: 6:30 p.m.
- India: 8:00 p.m.
- China: 10:30 p.m.
- Japan: 11:30 p.m.
- Australia: July 13, 1:30 a.m. AEDT
Also, be sure to check out CNET Highlights, our YouTube channel, for all the big moments.
Can I take a private tour of JWST’s first images?
Yup. If you’re not a huge fan of live unveilings and would rather take it all in without pomp, NASA will also post JWST’s first full-color images and spectral data online here. Adding to the drama, the agency says these pictures will be released “one-by-one.”
Edge of our seats, indeed.
NASA recommends following along on its Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, too, in order to capture some of the discussion.
Plus, you can say hello to your new screensaver, wallpaper, home decor and personalized coffee mugs by downloading high-resolution versions of JWST science discoveries and other supplemental content.
What should we expect from JWST’s first images?
By now, you might’ve seen a few preliminary JWST pictures. I know I’ve spent quite a bit of time musing about them. But they’re not exactly the scope’s “first images.”
In short, NASA has to get through a total of 17 testing “modes,” which can be thought of as checkpoints, prior to booting up the telescope. And as the agency has been making its way down the list, we’ve been blessed with a bunch of luminescent, red-orange peeks into JWST’s eventual vision.
However, these are pretty much the products of calibrating all the telescope’s instruments — which you can read about in more detail here — not the finalized, highly anticipated conglomerate images scientists are calling JWST’s “first light.”
But in a press conference held on Wednesday, NASA members who’ve already caught a glimpse of JWST’s true first light said they were absolutely blown away and moved to tears. “What I have seen moved me, as a scientist, as an engineer and as a human being,” Pam Melroy, NASA’s deputy administrator, said.
In general, I’d argue that scientists are so enthralled by JWST simply because we don’t know what to expect. That’s kind of the point. This telescope is often headlined as “trailblazing” and “groundbreaking” because it’s built to find things in the universe we might’ve never thought existed and answer questions about the evolution of time we didn’t know to ask.
It’s all because JWST operates very differently than other high-tech telescopes, including Hubble. It uses what’s known as infrared imaging to show us a region of the universe we can’t see with our naked eye — and even Hubble can’t see with its ultra-powerful lens.
What you need to know about infrared imaging
In a nutshell, JWST’s infrared imaging instruments collaborate to detect light emanating from a region of the electromagnetic spectrum that’s invisible to human eyes — the infrared region. This area of the spectrum is vital for mapping the timeline of our universe, but has sort of been missing in previous observations.
As stars and galaxies move farther and farther away from us, the wavelengths of light they emit continuously stretch out like a rubber band being pulled. Eventually, they get so stretched out that they reach into the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. And, because the universe is constantly expanding, the oldest, rarest, probably most valuable stars — and things illuminated by those stars — only show up to us as infrared light.
So, we can’t see those super far away, really ancient cosmic bodies with our eyes — or even a regular telescope lens, for that matter — even if we squint until our faces hurt and hope until our faith begins to dwindle.
When JWST looks up at the sky, however, it can show us all that infrared goodness. It will illuminate for us all the stars, galaxies, quasars, black holes and maybe even exoplanets poised to hold life that we can’t see. You can read more about the infrared mechanism here — but basically, think of it as the difference between looking up at the stars from a light-saturated New York City, then again from a dark forest glen.
Amid the dense foliage, you’d see a whole lot more sparkles even though it’s the same sky. You’re just viewing it unfiltered by light pollution. JWST takes this to the next level… times a million. It’s armed to show us an unfiltered universe.
Hubble has a few infrared detection capabilities, but not nearly as much as JWST. Other space probes, such as the 1989 Cosmic Background Explorer have technically studied a greater distance into the universe than JWST will — but JWST “was designed not to see the beginnings of the universe, but to see a period of the universe’s history that we have not seen yet,” John Mather, senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, said.
Potentially, understanding that missing piece of the cosmic puzzle could help us know whether we have the Big Bang’s story correct, how far the universe truly extends and, one day, maybe even show us whether there’s life out there. Or prove to us that we’re alone.
The possibilities are endless, but they’ll begin to spool out on July 12. Until then, here’s NASA’s JWST first light countdown.