Astronomers Haven’t Been This Giddy in Years

The James Webb Space Telescope’s first full-color images, set to be released in days, will signal the start of a new era in space science.

A test image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope that shows a few bright stars and many galaxies in the background
A few bright stars and lots of distant galaxies are visible in this test image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope in May. (Canadian Space Agency / NASA / FGS)

About six months have elapsed since the most powerful space telescope in history bid farewell to Earth and took off into the darkness. In that time, the James Webb Space Telescope has deployed its gold-coated mirrors, turned on its instruments, and gotten the hang of operating 1 million miles from Earth. It has taken a good look around, and it’s almost ready to show us what it has found: NASA is scheduled to publicly release Webb’s first batch of full-color images and observations early next week.

Astronomers around the world are—how do I put this very seriously and scientifically?—absolutely psyched about this. Just bouncing off the walls. They’re even more amped now that NASA has released the list of cosmic objects that will be revealed on Tuesday. Scientists know that Webb is about to become the big thing in astronomy. The observatory, a joint project of NASA and the European and Canadian space agencies, is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope. It can study celestial objects in ways that Hubble cannot, and gaze deeper into the cosmos, too—to some of the oldest stars and galaxies, which ignited into existence not long after the Big Bang. It is not hyperbole to say that Webb’s observations will provide an entirely new sense of the universe and how it all came to be.

For astronomers, being here on the cusp of a bold new understanding of things is like trying to fall asleep the night before Christmas. (They’re certainly less stressed out than they were on the actual night before Christmas, in 2021, in the hours before Webb launched to space on December 25.)

Next week’s lineup includes an assortment of subjects that are meant to demonstrate Webb’s range as an all-purpose space telescope that can show us the universe in infrared, a wavelength invisible to our eyes.

There’s a pair of nebulae, radiant regions in interstellar space. The Carina Nebula is a billowy cloud of gas and dust located about 7,600 light-years from Earth, and home to radiant stars many times more massive than our sun. The Hubble views of this object are already stunning. The Southern Ring nebula is a cloud of ever-expanding gas around a dying star, situated about 2,000 light-years from here. Nebulas are known to be photogenic environments, so these shots are sure to be dazzling.

Then there’s some galaxy goodness. Stephan’s Quintet, named for the 19th-century French astronomer who discovered them, is a cluster of galaxies about 290 million light-years away. Four of the five galaxies are locked in a kind of dance together, their shapes warped by each other’s gravitational fields. Webb will also show us a galaxy cluster known as SMACS 0723, where galaxies distort and magnify the light emanating from other objects behind them, a cosmic quirk that allows telescopes to spot very distant and faint galaxies farther out. This is the kind of work that Webb was designed to do best. Hubble’s famous “deep field” cataloged thousands of galaxies; Webb’s future deep fields will reveal 1 million of them.

And then there’s WASP-96b, a giant exoplanet orbiting a star nearly 1,150 light-years away. Webb won’t show us an image of the planet, but a “spectrum” instead—visual data that reveal which kinds of molecules are floating around in this alien world’s atmosphere. Webb isn’t designed to directly photograph planets beyond our solar system in great detail, but it can examine their cloudtops in search of chemical signatures that we know to be associated with life.

The targets for Webb’s big debut were chosen by a small group with representatives from all three space agencies. Few people in the astronomy community seem to know who exactly was in it, or, if they do, they won’t say; Heidi Hammel, an astronomer at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, described the group to me as “the inner sanctum.” All the work was done very secretively, which has only heightened the anticipation ahead of the official release.

For astronomers, the release of Webb’s first images signals the real start of its scientific operations. NASA released a few practice images in the past six months, mostly to show how well Webb’s science instruments were working, and astronomers glommed on to those small sneak peeks, which captured gleaming hints of distant galaxies. “People were producing galaxy catalogs just from a JPEG,” Sarah Kendrew, a European Space Agency astronomer who works at the Space Science Telescope Institute in Maryland, which operates Webb, told me. “People were really digging in, going, What are the coordinates? What are these galaxies in the background?

Soon the data will really be flowing. The first year of Webb’s observations is already planned, filled out with research proposals from scientists around the world to study targets as familiar as the planets in our solar system and objects as mysterious as black holes at the centers of faraway galaxies. “The mood is definitely shifting from Maybe someday we will get data to Whoa, buckle up, the ride is about to start,” said Hammel, who has worked on the Webb project for more than two decades.

But astronomers will certainly take a moment to bask in the wonder of these first images. Pierre Ferruit, the European Space Agency’s project scientist for Webb, told me today that he saw a few of the images yesterday, but couldn’t divulge any details. He just smiled wide. “They were quite fantastic,” Ferruit said. “It’s worth the wait.” So watch this space—literally.