How NASA’s Webb Space Telescope Images Were Selected

Even reaching this point had taken decades of planning, threatened cancellations, delays upon delays, a pandemic, and a series of harrowing inverted origami that was necessary to unfold the telescope into deep space without breaking it. In Baltimore, this group’s task was a mix of on-the-fly science, public speaking, and brand management: blowing everyone’s mind, showing policymakers what all those credits had paid for, and assuring the rest of the scientific world that yes, some of the universe’s most elusive secrets could finally be at your fingertips.

The new telescope’s still-functioning predecessor, Hubble — now 32, solidly in the millennial generation — had underscored the stakes. Early images from Hubble clearly showed its mirror to be faulty, angering Congress and turning the project into a punchline. But after successful repairs, scientists working on Hubble went on to produce jaw-dropping proto-viral photos of galaxies and nebulae as the “pillars of creation”, inspiring countless careers in science. (Mine included: Before becoming a science journalist, I spent two years as a data analyst for Hubble, which is also run by the Space Telescope Science Institute.)

But James Webb is another beast, so distinctive and so advanced in his abilities that even seasoned astronomers had no idea what to expect from the images he would produce. This is largely due to the fact that the Webb operates in infrared wavelengths. At these frequencies, inaccessible to human eyes, clouds that appear solid to Hubble dissolve into wisps of cirrus clouds, distant galaxies become brighter, new details emerge from the dark, and space itself is illuminated with light. organic molecules spewed into the last gasps of dying stars.

Just showing this stuff would require a distinct color palette and style. NASA wanted to start releasing the first images within six weeks of the telescope going live. And while staring into the abyss of the cosmic sublime for weeks would have its benefits, the cone of silence around the project could also prove lonely.

In early June, for example, Klaus Pontoppidan, the astronomer leading this early launch team, was the first human to download the full “deep field” view of the new telescope. This long, in-depth look at distant galaxies goes further back to the beginning of time and the edge of space than any instrument of humanity has ever managed. “I was sitting there watching it for two hours and then desperately, desperately sharing it with someone,” he said. “But I couldn’t.”

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