NASA releases first images from Webb telescope

By Elise Hammond, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt and Meg Wagner, CNN

Updated 5:42 PM ET, Tue July 12, 2022
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10:38 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

Scientists hope Webb will be the first step in identifying signs of life in space

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

Could there be life in space? Scientists hope the James Webb Space Telescope will help them get closer to the answer.

Astronomers have yet to find a solar system quite like ours. And of the thousands of known exoplanets, none quite match up with the planets in our cosmic backyard. But scientists have only just begun to scratch the surface of these planets outside the solar system. The next step is looking inside of them.

Webb will peer into the very atmospheres of exoplanets, some of which are potentially habitable. Since the first exoplanets were discovered in the 1990s, many have wondered if we might find another Earth out there, a place called Planet B.

So far, the study of these bodies hasn't revealed another Earth, and it's unlikely that even with technology like the Webb, there won't be "a true Earth analog" out there, said Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Signs of life: The Webb telescope will look inside the atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting much smaller stars than our sun. These planets are connected with an intriguing idea: What if life happens differently outside of Earth? And it's something that the successors of this telescope could investigate in the decades to come.

In fact, the task of identifying signs of life on other planets is already slated for future telescopes, like the one outlined in the recently released Astro2020 decadal survey that will look at 25 potentially habitable exoplanets.

"I kind of really want us to be able to find life on something that looks not a lot like Earth," said Nikole Lewis, astrophysicist and an assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell University.

Life, as we understand it, needs energy, liquid and the right temperature, she said. What happens when a potential sign of life is detected? Finding the sign is fantastic — and figuring out the next step is crucial, said Sara Seager, an astrophysicist, planetary scientist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

If it's determined that there was no other way a potential sign of life could be created, collaboration will be a key aspect, Lewis said. Engaging with chemists, biologists and people of different disciplines outside of astronomy and planetary science can determine the path forward.

"My hope is that we'll be careful, and that we will engage with all of the relevant experts to try to understand if this is in fact, a signature that could only mean that life is on this planet, and then hopefully announced such a thing to the public," Lewis said.

Jill Tarter, astronomer and former director of the Center for SETI Research, believes that the answer to finding life may rely on technosignatures, rather than biosignatures, because the evidence of past or present technology is "potentially a lot less ambiguous."

Biosignatures could be gases or molecules that show signs of life. Technosignatures are signals that could be created by intelligent life.

Read further about the search for life in space here.

Watch more:

10:34 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

The Webb telescope was built to look at the structure of the universe itself. Here's what to know about it.

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

The James Webb telescope on March 5, 2020.
The James Webb telescope on March 5, 2020. (Chris Gunn/NASA)

In addition to investigating the wealth of planets outside of our solar system, the James Webb Space Telescope is peering back to some of the earliest galaxies that formed after the Big Bang and the very structure of the universe itself.

Launched in December, the Webb is allowing researchers to get four times closer to the Big Bang than the Hubble Space Telescope, according to Marcia Rieke, a regents professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory and principal investigator for the Near Infrared Camera on the Webb telescope.

Hubble observed the universe 450 million years after the Big Bang.

Each space telescope builds on the knowledge gained from the previous one. In the case of Webb, its mirror is nearly 60 times larger than previous space telescopes, including the retired Spitzer Space Telescope. The observatory also improves on the sensitivity and resolution of the Hubble.

Collecting infrared observations from space prevents interference created by the heat from our planet and its atmosphere. These observations could confirm or entirely upend predictions and ideas that scientists have about the origin of the universe and how it evolved.

Here are some other things to know about the Webb telescope:

  • A massive mirror: The telescope comes equipped with a mirror that can extend 21 feet and 4 inches (6.5 meters) — a massive length that will allow the mirror to collect more light from the objects it observes once the telescope is in space. The more light the mirror can collect, the more details the telescope can observe. The mirror includes 18 hexagonal gold-coated segments, each 4.3 feet (1.32 meters) in diameter. It's the largest mirror NASA has ever built, the agency said
  • Super sunshield: The spacecraft includes a five-layer sunshield that unfurled to reach the size of a tennis court. It will protect Webb's giant mirror and instruments from the sun's heat because they need to be kept at a very frigid negative 370 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 188 degrees Celsius) to operate. Scientists say this allows it to look at things that were out of reach before.
  • Key wavelengths: Key questions about the universe can be answered when scientists have access to data from different wavelengths of light — something scientists really started looking at in the last 70 years. Before that, "all astronomy was done in optical (visible light) and looking at the universe in optical is like going to the symphony concert and only listening to one note. Now, we've got the whole symphony," said George Rieke, a regents professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory who worked on Webb as the science team lead for the telescope's Mid-Infrared Instrument.
10:16 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

The first photos from the Webb telescope come after decades of work

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

The James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful telescope ever built — a moment that has been decades in the making.

The telescope, which includes instruments from the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency, has endured years of delays, including a combination of factors brought on by the pandemic and technical challenges.

Here are some of the key dates:

  • 1989: The concept for Webb was first imagined as a successor to the Hubble telescope at a workshop.
  • 2004: Construction began on Webb. Thousands of scientists, technicians and engineers from 14 countries have spent 40 million hours building.
  • 2018: The telescope was initially planned to launch in 2018, but endured years of delays, including a combination of factors brought on later by the pandemic and technical challenges.
  • December 2021: The previous launch date of Dec. 18 was pushed to Dec. 22 after technicians were preparing to attach the telescope to the upper stage of the rocket when "a sudden, unplanned release of a clamp band caused a vibration throughout the observatory," according to the agency. After testing and reviewing the observatory, teams concluded that the telescope was not damaged. After another delay, weather pushed the launch back again one more day from Dec. 24 to Dec. 25.
  • Dec. 25, 2021: The telescope successfully launched from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana.
  • Dec. 26, 2021: Webb released its antenna assembly, including a high-data-rate dish antenna, that will serve as the telescope's way of sending back 28.6 gigabytes of science data twice a day. Once it is in orbit, Webb will continue to communicate with teams on Earth and the space observatory using the Deep Space Network, which is composed of three massive antenna ground stations in Australia, Spain and California.
  • January 2022: Webb reached it final destination in space and unfurled its tennis court-size sunshield and unfolded a massive gold mirror. It is in an orbit called the second sun-Earth Lagrange point, or L2. This vantage point is ideal for Webb because the gravitational forces of the sun and Earth will basically ensure the spacecraft doesn't have to use much thrust to stay in orbit. And it will allow the telescope to have an unimpeded view of the universe, unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which moves in and out of Earth's shadow every 90 minutes.
  • March 2022: Webb completed a series of tests to make sure it was working as expected. The team didn't encounter any issues and determined that Webb can observe light from distant objects and feed that light into the science instruments aboard the observatory.
  • May 2022: One of the 18 golden segments of the James Webb Space Telescope's giant mirror was hit by a micrometeoroid. Spacecrafts don't have a protective bubble of atmosphere around them like the Earth does, so it's almost impossible to avoid these impacts. Fortunately, each hexagonal mirror segment is fully adjustable, and the impacted segment has already been adjusted to lessen some of the distortion.

Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket with NASAs James Webb Space Telescope onboard lifts up from the launchpad, at the Europes Spaceport, the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, on December 25, 2021. 
Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket with NASAs James Webb Space Telescope onboard lifts up from the launchpad, at the Europes Spaceport, the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, on December 25, 2021.  (Jody Amiet/AFP/Getty Images)

9:51 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

Scientists say new NASA images could change our perspective on the universe. Here's what to expect.

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope.
Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. (Adriana Manrique Gutierrez/CIL/GSFC/NASA)

We're about to have an entirely new perspective on the universe.

The James Webb Space Telescope will release the rest of its first high-resolution color images on Tuesday. "We're only beginning to understand what Webb can and will do," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson during a news conference in June.

"It's going to explore objects in the solar system and atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting other stars, giving us clues as to whether potentially their atmospheres are similar to our own."

The space observatory, which launched in December, will be able to peer inside the atmospheres of exoplanets and observe some of the first galaxies created after the universe began by observing them through infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye.

Webb began taking its first images a couple of weeks ago. The first packet of color images will be the result of 120 hours of observation, which is about five days' worth of data.

The initial goal for the telescope was to see the first stars and galaxies of the universe, essentially watching "the universe turn the lights on for the first time," said Eric Smith, Webb program scientist and NASA Astrophysics Division chief scientist.

What they will show: Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said each image "will reveal different aspects of the universe in unprecedented detail and sensitivity." The images shared Tuesday will focus on four cosmic targets: the Carina Nebula, WASP-96b, the Southern Ring Nebula and Stephan's Quintet.

They will show how galaxies interact and grow and how the collisions between galaxies drive star formation, as well as examples of the violent life cycle of stars. And we can expect to see the first spectrum of an exoplanet, or how wavelengths of light and different colors reveal characteristics of other worlds.

The first release will highlight Webb's science capabilities as well as the ability of its massive golden mirror and science instruments to produce spectacular images.

9:41 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

These first images from the Webb telescope are just the beginning of the mission, scientists say

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

NASA is releasing the first few images from the James Webb Space Telescope on Tuesday, but these initial pictures are just the beginning.

The mission, originally expected to last for 10 years, has enough excess fuel capability to operate for 20 years, according to NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy.

The data collected by the space observatory will be publicly released so scientists around the world "can start a shared journey of discovery," Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said.

The data gathered by Webb will enable scientists to make precise measurements of planets, stars and galaxies in a way that has never been possible before, said Susan Mullally, Webb deputy project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

"Webb can see backwards in time just after the big bang by looking for galaxies that are so far away, the light has taken many billions of years to get from those galaxies to ourselves," said Jonathan Gardner, Webb deputy senior project scientist at NASA.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, has seen some of the first images that will be shared on Tuesday.

"It's an emotional moment when you see nature suddenly releasing some of its secrets," Zurbuchen said on Wednesday. "With this telescope, it's really hard not to break records."

9:35 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

How scientists are trying to protect the Webb telescope from being hit by micrometeoroids

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

Ball Aerospace optical technician Scott Murray inspects the first gold primary mirror segment, a critical element of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, prior to cryogenic testing in the X-ray & Cryogenic Facility at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Ball Aerospace optical technician Scott Murray inspects the first gold primary mirror segment, a critical element of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, prior to cryogenic testing in the X-ray & Cryogenic Facility at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (David Higginbotham/MSFC/NASA)

One of the 18 golden segments of the James Webb Space Telescope's giant mirror was hit by a micrometeoroid in May, according to an update from NASA

A micrometeoroid is a particle in space that is smaller than a grain of sand. Earth's atmosphere is hit by millions of meteoroids and micrometeoroids on a regular basis, but most are vaporized when they hit the atmosphere, according to NASA.

But spacecraft don't have a protective bubble of atmosphere around them, so it's almost impossible to avoid these impacts.

The team is continuing to analyze and assess what happened and how it may affect the telescope's performance. It's also likely the first of many such experiences that Webb will have over its time in space.

When the telescope and its massive mirror were being built and tested on Earth, engineers made sure that the mirror could survive the micrometeoroid environment the spacecraft would experience in its orbit about a million miles from Earth at a point called L2, where dust particles are accelerated to extreme velocities.

Webb was put through its paces while on Earth, and the team used both simulations and test impacts on mirror samples to understand what it would face. The May impact event was larger than anything the team tested or would have been able to model while Webb was still on the ground.

Fortunately, each hexagonal mirror segment is fully adjustable, and the impacted segment has already been adjusted to lessen some of the distortion. This is something engineers can continue to do in the future as they monitor Webb's mirror for any signs of degradation in the space environment.

Looking ahead: The Webb team will work closely with micrometeoroid prediction experts at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. And Webb will be able to help NASA scientists learn more about the dust environment of the solar system at this orbit point, which can assist with preparing for future missions.

"With Webb's mirrors exposed to space, we expected that occasional micrometeoroid impacts would gracefully degrade telescope performance over time," said Lee Feinberg, Webb optical telescope element manager at NASA Goddard, in a statement.

"Since launch, we have had four smaller measurable micrometeoroid strikes that were consistent with expectations and this one more recently that is larger than our degradation predictions assumed. We will use this flight data to update our analysis of performance over time and also develop operational approaches to assure we maximize the imaging performance of Webb to the best extent possible for many years to come," Feinberg said.
9:29 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

These are the 5 cosmic targets captured in first Webb telescope images

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

The Hubble Space Telescope captured this 50-light-year-wide view of the central region of the Carina Nebula.
The Hubble Space Telescope captured this 50-light-year-wide view of the central region of the Carina Nebula. (NASA/ESA/N. Smith (UC, Berkeley)/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

NASA is releasing the first images from its James Webb Space Telescope on Tuesday which will include a new look at four cosmic targets: the Carina Nebula, WASP-96b, the Southern Ring Nebula and Stephan's Quintet. A first image, shared Monday, showcased SMACS 0723.

Located 7,600 light-years away, the Carina Nebula is a stellar nursery, where stars are born. It is one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky and home to many stars much more massive than our sun.

Webb's study of the giant gas planet WASP-96b will be the first full-color spectrum of an exoplanet. The spectrum will include different wavelengths of light that could reveal new information about the planet, such as whether it has an atmosphere. Discovered in 2014, WASP-96b is located 1,150 light-years from Earth. It has half the mass of Jupiter and completes an orbit around its star every 3.4 days.

The Southern Ring Nebula, also called the "Eight-Burst," is 2,000 light-years away from Earth. This large planetary nebula includes an expanding cloud of gas around a dying star.

The space telescope's view of Stephan's Quintet will reveal the way galaxies interact with one another. This compact galaxy group, first discovered in 1787, is located 290 million light-years away in the constellation Pegasus. Four of the five galaxies in the group "are locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters," according to a NASA statement.

The image released Monday shows SMACS 0723, where a massive group of galaxy clusters act as a magnifying glass for the objects behind them. Called gravitational lensing, this will create Webb's first deep field view of incredibly old and distant, faint galaxies. It is "the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date," according to NASA.

The targets were selected by an international committee, including members from NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

9:29 a.m. ET, July 12, 2022

Here's how the events will unfold today

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

NASA is unveiling new photos from the James Webb Space Telescope on Tuesday. The first images from the telescope look deep into space as scientists explore stars, galaxies and exoplanets.

Here's how the reveal will go:

  • 9:45 a.m. ET: NASA leadership and the Webb team will make opening remarks.
  • 10:30 a.m. ET: In a broadcast, the images will start to be released one by one.
  • 12:30 p.m. ET: Officials will hold a news conference and offer details about the images.

NASA released the first image on Monday, capturing the deepest view of our universe ever to be seen by humans. NASA called the image "the deepest & sharpest infrared image of the early universe ever taken."  

Webb began taking its first images a couple of weeks ago. The first color images will be the result of 120 hours of observation, which is about five days' worth of data.