In an unexpected twist, President Joe Biden will reveal the first full-color image from the Webb Space Telescope at the White House today at 5 p.m. ET. The much-anticipated release of the rest of the images remains scheduled for 10:30 a.m. ET tomorrow, and a live stream of Biden’s comments later today can be found here.
If you’re just joining the saga of the Webb telescope, the spacecraft has already taken a number of images since it arrived at its destination point a million miles away in space, a gravitationally favorable place called L2. But those images have been test shots, to make sure that Webb’s mirrors are properly aligned and that its instruments are in working order.
Webb only collects light in the infrared and near-infrared wavelengths, meaning that data from the telescope must be translated into visible wavelengths for our viewing pleasure. The processed images will be the first views of the cosmos as seen by Webb in living color. That makes them a pretty dreamy proposition, as Webb’s technology is a marked improvement from that of space telescopes like Spitzer and Hubble. The telescope will allow humanity to peer into the earliest era of the universe and see very distant objects in much greater detail.
While we don’t know which image the president will unveil, we know it will focus on one of the five cosmic targets NASA announced last week, a list that included one exoplanet, two nebulae, a cluster of galaxies, and a deep field image, achievable thanks to a gravitational lens.
On Twitter, NASA stated that Biden will unveil an image of “deep space,” a term that could apply to any of the cosmic targets (deep space typically refers to all space beyond Earth’s gravitational influence or beyond the solar system).
Thanks to the fuel-saving precision of its launch, Webb—which was given a minimum timeline of five years in operation—should be able to study the cosmos for about 20 years. With any luck, the phenomena it observes will upheave our understanding of how stars and galaxies formed and the structure and diversity of exoplanets, as well as other objects in our own solar system.
As with any momentous occasion, the waiting becomes more interminable as we get closer to the big reveal. But we’re nearly over the line. And once we cross it, the universe will never be the same.