Scientists Marvel at NASA Webb Telescope’s New Views of the Cosmos

Scientists Marvel at NASA Webb Telescope’s New Views of the Cosmos

Credit…Michael A. McCoy for The New York Times

On Tuesday morning, a new view of the Carina Nebula was made public alongside other new observations from the James Webb Space Telescope. But it made an earlier debut on another Tuesday morning — this one in June, when a small team clutching coffee cups gathered for one of many morning meetings to receive, process and repackage for public consumption what humanity’s latest and greatest set of eyes could see — after the team members had first signed nondisclosure agreements to ensure no early leaks.

This group’s task was a mix of on-the-fly science, public communication and brand management: Blow everyone’s mind, show policymakers what all those appropriations had paid for, and assure the rest of the scientific world that yes, some of the universe’s most elusive secrets might at long last be within reach.

The new telescope’s still-functioning predecessor, Hubble, had underscored the stakes. Hubble’s first-look images made it obvious that its mirror was flawed. But after successful repairs, scientists working on Hubble went on to crank out jaw-dropping, proto-viral photos of galaxies and nebulae like the “Pillars of Creation,” inspiring countless careers in the sciences. (Mine included: Before becoming a science journalist, I spent two years as a data analyst for Hubble, which is also run out of the Space Telescope Science Institute.)

But James Webb is another beast altogether, so distinctive and advanced in its capabilities that even veteran astronomers had little idea what to expect of the images it would yield. Much of that is because the Webb operates in infrared wavelengths.

Simply showing off this stuff would demand a distinct color palette and style. NASA wanted to start pushing out the first images within six weeks of the telescope’s coming online. And while staring into the abyss of the cosmic sublime for weeks on end would have its perks, the cone of silence around the project could also prove lonely.

In early June, for example, Klaus Pontoppidan, the astronomer leading this early release team, was the first human to download the new telescope’s full “deep field” view.

“I was 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 convened to start choosing Webb’s very first demo targets. Ultimately, this process nominated around 70 possible targets.

Once the telescope had begun operating this winter, they whittled this list down to regions of the sky it could point to within the six-week time limit — plus a few held in reserve, to tease out in the next few months.

And then, finally, finally, the earliest results started trickling in through the bottleneck of Dr. Pontppidan’s computer in early June. From there, the team digitally combined raw frames into deeper, more polished exposures and then passed them on to image processors for color rendering.

“I just felt overwhelmed,” said Joe Depasquale, the lead image processor on the project, describing what it had felt like to see one scene of another star-forming nebula to come together — something with a more Carvaggio-esque, light-and-shadow effect that wasn’t included in the initial batch of releases. “This is going to blow people’s minds,” he said. (Confirmed.)

Will anything land as hard as the Apollo shots? Or the Hubble pics, plastered on science classroom walls and aped by everyone from Terrence Malick to the “Thor” movies? We’ll see. But for now, at least, the tap is open, and the universe is pouring in.


July 12, 2022

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a Webb telescope image processor. He is Joe Depasquale, not Despaquale.

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