By Bhavya Surapaneni Castle Pines, Colorado
On Monday, July 11, 2022, President Biden shared the first full-color image from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in a White House Briefing. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the United States then went on to publish four more photos the day after the briefing from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
JWST was a project started by NASA as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in low-earth orbit since its launch in 1990. The Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror had an aberration due to miscalibration during manufacturing, resulting in unclear images after launch. A year later, Ball Aerospace began working on corrective optics. In 1993, NASA launched mission STS-61 to fix the mirror’s aberration. Despite Hubble’s eventual success, the incident wound up hurting NASA, which was already reeling from the Challenger disaster in 1986, where the space shuttle broke apart during flight, killing its seven crew members.
Thus, the newer and more technologically advanced James Webb Space Telescope was NASA’s shot at redemption after a losing streak. Although discussions of Hubble’s possible predecessor had begun in the 80s, work on Webb initially began in the 90s to enable it to see even further back in cosmic history than Hubble. The telescope is named after James E. Webb, the second administrator of NASA during the time of preparation for the successful 1969 moon landing. A major distinction between Hubble and Webb is that JWST is an infrared-sensitive telescope, whereas Hubble sees primarily visible and ultraviolet light. Webb was initially proposed as a $500 million project, but NASA continued missing the budget and requiring additional funds for 15 years until Webb cost $10 billion.
The development of JWST was led by NASA, which collaborated with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). In 2005, after NASA and contractors realized significant cost growth, the telescope was re-planned, but there was further cost growth. In 2011, the United States House of Representatives’ appropriations committee on Commerce, Justice, and Science moved to cancel the James Webb Space Telescope project. This resulted in statements made in support of the project by the American Astronomical Society and U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, the one who had called for an external review in the first place. In light of public and press support, the House reversed its decision, offering additional funding to the project to be capped at $8 billion.
The launch date was continually pushed back, and after the COVID-19 pandemic, NASA was finally ready to launch the telescope in late 2021. On December 25, 2021, JWST was launched from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 Rocket, partially because French Guiana is closer to the equator and due to collaborations with the European Space Agency. In January 2022, JWST reached the Sun-Earth Lagrange point L2, at which attractive and repulsive forces are stronger between the celestial bodies. Therefore, less fuel consumption is necessary to stay in position. The primary camera of JWST was deployed on January 8th, and after months of being fully operational and collecting images, the first images were made public in July 2022.
The 5 initial images—SMACS 0723 (Webb’s Deep Field), The Cosmic Cliffs of Carina, Stephan’s Quintet, and the Southern Ring Nebula—were received with joy worldwide. In an interview with Newsweek, astrophysicist Sarafina Nance shared, “From my early college days in astronomy through grad school, JWST has represented the advent of new scientific discoveries in previously unreachable parts of the universe. Frankly, it's dizzying for the days of JWST to finally be here!” Many others, both scientists and the general public, shared their responses to the images on social media, with faces of awe and excitement filling up their Instagram and Twitter timeline.
Tentatively, the next full-color image from James Webb is expected to be released to the public in the week of August 1st. There has been no decision on which images will be released at this time, but experts expect the images to relate to scientific observations and further deep field data.