A behind-the-scenes account of the James Webb Space Telescope’s first year.
About This Article
Great ideas require great investment. The James Webb Space Telescope was first proposed during a 1989 workshop at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, the year before the Hubble Space Telescope launched. During that conference, researchers recommended focusing on infrared light, photons that lie beyond what our eyes can observe, to deepen our understanding of the universe. Decades later, Webb has met or exceeded every expectation since its December 25, 2021 launch. In July 2022, its first full-color images and data reached billions of people around the world, leaving many breathless and eagerly wanting more.
None of this would be possible without the dedication of the mission’s partners: NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. STScI, home to Webb’s Mission Operations Center, is where engineers send commands to the telescope, monitor its health, and ensure observations are carried out as planned. STScI also hosts Webb’s Science Operations Center, working to coordinate the selection of astronomers’ proposals, schedule its observations, develop tools to help researchers analyze the data, host conferences and symposiums, and share its scientific results with the world.
Beginning to Command and Control Webb
Throughout 2022, STScI’s window-lined building seemed to glow more brightly, reflecting the energy and concentration of the people inside. Filled with open rows of desks, high-definition screens, and safely populated with astronomers, scientists, and engineers—frequently masked due to the ongoing pandemic—Webb’s Mission Operations Center officially became the hub of the telescope’s activities. Our staff supported and collaborated closely with all the mission’s partners through six months of commissioning, which began when Webb separated from its rocket 27 minutes after liftoff.
During the first few days after launch, engineers commanded Webb’s rockets to fire, gently pushing the telescope toward its final orbital location. A beautifully orchestrated symphony of tasks followed. Within the first weeks, Webb’s tennis court-sized sunshield was fully deployed, sheltering its sensitive instruments from the Sun on one side, and absorbing energy and communicating with Earth on the opposite side. Next, its honeycomb-like mirrors were latched open and its secondary mirror slowly moved into place. Within a month, Webb was cooling, following a halo orbit 1.5 million kilometers (1 million miles) from Earth, as staff commanded it around the clock.
Some of our staff who split their duties between two or more missions, like Webb and Hubble or Webb and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, dedicated more of their time to Webb throughout commissioning. Their careful attention was required to ensure every activity proceeded smoothly. Engineering images were periodically released by NASA to demonstrate that Webb’s instruments were performing well. A test image, which was solely designed to demonstrate that the telescope’s 18 hexagonal primary mirror segments were precisely adjusted to act like a single mirror, showed a perfectly focused star. The wow factor of that image was multiplied when the star was accompanied by dozens of background galaxies. In many ways, this image helped preview the deep rewards of observing in infrared light—there’s so much more to capture with Webb!
In April, staff completed the initial alignment of Webb’s four powerful onboard science instruments, with each able to deliver crisp, well-focused images and clear data. The impact of this became more distinct in May with a test image from Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument, the second camera on board. This scene of stars, gas, and dust is very well defined—promising many future possibilities for detailed research. For the next two months, science teams worked around the clock to test the capabilities of every instrument, fully vetting their optics, filters, detectors, and imaging and spectroscopic observing modes. Staff also tested Webb’s operating modes, including acquiring and using guide stars, observing moving targets, and taking lengthy time-series observations. Though staff at the institute had prepared for years for Webb’s operations by writing and posting extensive documentation about how the instruments work, they made updates as needed throughout commissioning, often to share that the instruments were performing better than expected.
Preparing for the Start of Webb Science
In June, a team of astronomers, imaging specialists, designers, and writers began gathering daily at STScI to produce the first of Webb’s observations that would get the full-color treatment. The mix of targets included a dying star casting off its layers of gas and dust, a prismatic star-forming region, a glittering group of galaxies, data known as spectra that revealed signatures of water in a distant planet’s atmosphere, and the deepest, most detailed image of the universe to date. These six weeks of preparation were like a master’s course: The astronomers were continuing to learn the instruments’ capabilities, along with their colleagues in the Mission Operations Center, as well as how to refine Webb’s data. STScI’s imaging specialists had to intentionally process each image and make color palette selections to highlight the scientific value of Webb’s observations. And our writers worked with everyone to fully describe these vivid, active scenes, helping to make Webb’s images understandable both in press releases, and alternative text used by screen readers for the blind and visually impaired community.
The public unveiling began the evening of Monday, July 11, when President Joe Biden showed Webb’s first image, and continued with an in-depth NASA broadcast on Tuesday. While the public was captivated, extensive work behind the scenes at the institute continued. Scientists, engineers, and archivists had prepared for months to upload Webb’s data to our public archive, the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST). While the rest of the world watched as each object was revealed, they were hard at work calibrating and processing the data produced by Webb’s first images and data, along with all of the commissioning data taken over six months. Their incredible dedication was soon rewarded. In just three weeks, approximately 260 terabytes of Webb data were served to astronomers in more than 100 countries. Webb’s science operations had officially begun.
Research takes time. Months in fact. That’s for good reason. Even though teams were largely assembled months or years earlier, there are a lot of calculations, conversations, and triple-checking required before a paper is submitted for publication. Then the papers go through rigorous peer review, which often leads to more questions and fact checking before the final papers are published by a journal. Knowing this, the mission partners worked closely with scientists to release Webb’s images faster through informal posts such as Early Highlights. With our partners, we released a variety of images, including Webb’s first observations of Mars and measurements of extremely distant galaxies. The articles quoted researchers extensively to help the public understand the processes astronomers follow before publishing a paper.
Official news releases kept flowing throughout 2022, and work has already begun for the first releases of 2023. As the months tick by, we’ll collectively glean new insights about the universe that Webb is uniquely capable of delivering. Part of Webb’s strength is in its partnerships. By observing alongside Hubble, for example, researchers can cover ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light—which provides so much more information about celestial targets.
Filling Out a Team of Great Observatories
This year also marked the moment when STScI staff members began fully supporting two flagship missions, Webb and Hubble, along with our archive MAST, which hosts data from more than 20 telescopes. In addition to operating Webb from our Mission Operations Center, our staff are also responsible for planning and scheduling the observations of both Webb and Hubble, disseminating the data in MAST, and adding new high-level science products that make it easier for researchers to dive deeply into Webb’s highly detailed images and data, which they also do for many other missions.
Staff who work on multiple missions are always thinking about how to use what they learned on one while working on another to optimize the processes and procedures of other telescopes. For example, whenever updates are pushed to the flight planning software for Webb, they consider applying those updates to Hubble’s software. Or, they might try out something with Hubble, since its operations are so stable and well known, and apply it to Webb. Staff who split their time supporting Webb and Roman have also used Webb’s software updates to benefit Roman’s future work. The staff at the institute operate within the same microcosm. We frequently seek to apply great ideas that were developed for one mission to others. And those changes often ripple out far beyond our doors, benefitting the worldwide astronomical community and leading to more discoveries that also enthrall the public.
Webb’s future is bright. Its success is owed to decades of planning and support by the mission partners, and STScI’s deeply knowledgeable and talented staff. A new door in the universe has opened, and we’ve all excitedly raced through, ready to greet the next great astronomical discoveries.