Astronomers celebrate first images from James Webb Space Telescope

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Ever since NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope successfully launched on Christmas morning, Texas A&M University astronomer Casey Papovich has been looking forward to Christmas in July — a milestone moment marking the official end of the telescope’s six-month instrument calibration and testing period and the beginning of its scientific operations set to transform our understanding of the hidden universe throughout cosmic history.

For Papovich and his fellow astronomers across the globe, that wait is officially over, teased by NASA’s presidential preview Monday (July 11) of JWST’s very first deep field image depicting galaxies once invisible to us and today’s (July 12) subsequent release of the full collection of Webb’s first full-color images and spectroscopic data. The historic images represent early release observations of five targets selected by NASA to demonstrate JWST’s unparalleled capabilities and provide tangible proof that the $10 billion telescope is now at full power and prepared to use its unprecedented infrared vision to begin peering back more than 13.5 billion years to see the first stars and galaxies forming out of the darkness of the early universe.

“In a word, wow, because it has been pretty jaw-dropping,” Papovich said. “There were things I expected, but there were a lot more that were surprises. Part of my mind knew that would be the case, but it was pretty awe-inspiring all the same. The structure and details you can see in that galaxy image alone is amazing. Hubble does not have the resolution to recognize individual star clusters in galaxies, but here, if you look closely, you can see and count the number of star clusters. I didn’t expect to see that. Webb had promised it could do these things, but to actually see it was impressive.”

Papovich detailed his immediate thoughts from a street corner in Baltimore during a break in between Tuesday meetings at the Space Telescope Science Institute, where he is on standby along with his fellow Early Release Science (ERS) Program-affiliated researchers for the next exciting development: Thursday’s pending release of more than 50 terabytes of data from the telescope’s first few months observing the cosmos that will figure prominently in the dozen or so proposals he is part of during the coming year.

“Everything has proceeded quickly and smoothly because everything was done right,” Papovich said. “The data we’ll be getting Thursday were taken in June because all the instrumentation was working that well that quickly and, therefore, they could. I don’t know how NASA did it, but it is nothing short of phenomenal.”

Papovich, a member of the Texas A&M Department of Physics and Astronomy and the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy since 2008, is one of seven Texas A&M astronomers who are either principal or co-principal investigators on no fewer than two dozen proposals awarded time on JWST during its initial year in space. NASA received approximately 1,200 proposals for first-year research and, after a peer-review process, selected 266 to move forward. One of Papovich’s proposals is the second-largest within the General Observer (GO) Program and was awarded one of the largest shares of time on JWST during Cycle 1.

“If I had to summarize our program, we’ll probably be the deepest JWST imaging that will be done in the first year that was approved by the NASA peer-review panel within the 6,000 hours allotted to the worldwide astronomical community,” said Papovich, who holds the Marsha L. ’69 and Ralph F. Schilling ’68 Chair in Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M. “JWST will show us details about distant galaxies we’ve never seen. However, we may not be the deepest depending on what the JWST instrument teams end up doing. They have their own time, so the ‘deepest’ label could depend on qualifiers.”

The complete list of Texas A&M-affiliated investigators is as follows:

Robert C. Kennicutt Jr.: co-investigator on a General Observer (GO) proposal and a collaborator on one of the Guaranteed Time Observations (GTO) projects awarded to scientists who deliver key JWST components

Lucas Macri: co-principal investigator on a proposal to study Cepheid variables in nearby galaxies as part of the SH0ES project

Casey Papovich: co-principal investigator on the Next Generation Deep Extragalactic Exploratory Public (NGDEEP) Survey; co-investigator on the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey and PRIMER (large cycle 1 program imaging in COSMOS and UDS fields); team member on 11 other proposals

Justin Spilker: principal investigator on “The Early Assembly History of the Most Massive Halo in the Reionization Era” and co-investigator on two others including the Early Release Science program TEMPLATES (ERS-01355)

Nicholas Suntzeff: co-investigator on “MIR Spectroscopy of Type Ia Supernovae: The Key To Unlocking Their Explosions and Element Production” and “Dust, Mass Loss and Explosions of Massive Stars in the MIR”

Jonelle Walsh: principal investigator on “Probing the M87 Supermassive Black Hole with Parsec-Scale Stellar Dynamics” and co-investigator on “Revealing Low Luminosity Active Galactic Nuclei (ReveaLLAGN)”

Lifan Wang: co-investigator on four projects, one on supernova 1987A, one on supernovae Type Ia at late time, one on core collapse supernovae at late time, and one on time domain astronomy

“In the months and years ahead, Webb will observe light from the first galaxies that formed after the universe began nearly 14 billion years ago, study objects in our own solar system, observe the life cycle of stars in distant galaxies, and investigate the properties of planets orbiting other stars, or so-called exoplanets,” Papovich said. “In all likelihood, Webb’s observations will transform our understanding of astronomical phenomena.”

The JWST is an international program led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it.

“I hope you’ll forgive my childlike sense of wonder here,” Papovich said. “This is why I got into astronomy in the first place — this incredible sense of discovery.”

More at the College of Science, which joins the new College of Arts & Sciences on September 1, 2022