August 12, 2022


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How were the images chosen from NASA's Web Space Telescope

How were the images chosen from NASA’s Web Space Telescope

Getting to this point took decades of planning and threatening to cancel, delay when late, a pandemic and a round of terrifying reverse origami that was needed to unravel the telescope in deep space without breaking it. In Baltimore, this group’s mission has been 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 elusive secrets of the universe may finally be within reach. .

The predecessor of the new telescope that is still in operation, Hubble — now 32, is firmly in the hands of millennials — has highlighted the risks. The Hubble images at first sight indicated that his mirror was defective, infuriating Congress and turning the project into a punch sentence. 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. At these frequencies, inaccessible to the human eye, clouds that seemed solid to Hubble dissolve into wisps of wax, distant galaxies grow brighter, new details of black appear, and space itself illuminates with the light of organic molecules blasted out in the last moments of dying stars.

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. This long survey of distant galaxies is closer to the beginning of time and the edge of space than any human tool has been able to manage. “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.”