Tuesday morning, A new view of the Carina Nebula It was announced alongside other new observations from the James Webb Space Telescope. But it made its debut on another Tuesday morning–that’s in June, when a small team carrying coffee cups gathered at one of the many morning meetings to receive, process and refill what humanity’s newest and greatest eyes could see–after team members first signed nondisclosure agreements To ensure that there are no early leaks.
This group’s mission was a mixture of fast-paced science, public communication, and brand management: unleash everyone’s mind, show policymakers what all those credits have paid for, and reassure the rest of the scientific world that yes, some of the most elusive secrets in the universe may finally be at hand. .
The new telescope’s predecessor, Hubble, has emphasized the risks. At first sight, Hubble images showed that his mirror was defective. But after successful repairs, scientists working on Hubble have continued to capture raw, jaw-dropping viral images of galaxies and nebulae like “Pillars of CreationInspiring countless careers in science. (My work included: Before becoming a science journalist, I spent two years as a data analyst at Hubble, who also ran out of the Space Telescope Science Institute.)
But James Webb is another monster entirely, so special and advanced in his abilities that even seasoned astronomers had no idea what to expect from the images he might produce. Much of that is because Webb operates in infrared waves.
Just displaying these will require a distinct color palette and style. NASA wanted to start getting the first images out within six weeks of the telescope coming online. And while staring into the cosmic abyss of Galilee for weeks on end will have its perks, the cone of silence around the project can also be lonely.
In early June, for example, Klaus Pontopedan, the astronomer who led this early release team, was the first human to download the full “deep field” view of the new telescope.
“I was just sitting there, staring at it for two hours, and then desperately, desperately wanting to share it with someone,” he said. “But I couldn’t.”
In 2016, a committee met to begin selecting Webb’s first experimental targets. Ultimately, this process identified about 70 potential targets.
Once the telescope got up and running this winter, they narrowed this list down to areas of the sky it could point to within the six-week deadline — plus a few in reserve, to get rid of in the next few months.
And then, finally, early results began trickling through the bottleneck of Dr. Pontepidan’s computer in early June. From there, the team digitally combined the raw frames into deeper, more polished exposures and then passed them to image processors for color rendering.
“I was exhausted,” said Joe Depasquale, the project’s lead image processor, describing what it was like to see a scene of another star-forming nebula coming together — something with a Carvaggio-esque and light-and-shadow effect that wasn’t included in the first installment of versions. “This will blow people’s minds,” he said. (Certain.)
Will anything hardly land the Apollo footage? Or the Hubble images plastered on science classroom walls and endorsed by everyone from Terrence Malik to the Thor movies? we will see. But for now, at least, the tap is on and the universe is flowing.
12 July 2022
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misspelled the family name of the Web Telescope Image Processor. It’s Joe Dipasquale, not Dipascual.
“Infuriatingly humble alcohol fanatic. Unapologetic beer practitioner. Analyst.”