Webb: The World Is About To Be New Again

As the Webb team wraps up the final tests for commissioning this week, we are now only days away from the public release of the first images and spectra on July 12! This also means that Webb is moving into the phase of full science operations that includes a highly impressive suite of science programs from the solar system to the distant universe. The entire Webb team is ready to celebrate the long journey to this point and embark on the next few decades of groundbreaking infrared astronomy.

Eric Smith, Webb program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, has been with Webb since its beginnings in the mid-1990s. We asked him to share his thoughts as we finalize commissioning and prepare for the first images release next week:

“Even after working on the program for many years, I’m as excited as everyone else who is anticipating the release of the first beautiful full-color images and data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope – an audacious endeavor in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. From a professional perspective, I’m thrilled with the mission and the realization that astronomers around the world will receive an amazing new tool to explore space. Webb joins existing Great Observatories, like NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory, giving scientists ‘eyes’ from Webb’s infrared vision through the visible, ultraviolet part of the spectrum to X-rays. A fantastic new era is upon us as these powerful facilities complement one another to investigate the cosmos.

“Yet, as stunning as these capabilities are, NASA is always looking to the future. Even today, we are constructing the next great observatory that will come after Webb, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Unlike the existing facilities, Roman is designed to capture images of huge portions of the sky all at once, allowing scientists to look for very rare and even time-variable phenomena. This impressive survey capability will come online in the latter half of the decade. As if that is not amazing enough, we’ve begun to think about how we might build a telescope specifically designed to image and study nearby exoplanets in ways impossible today even with Webb. All the facilities we currently have, and those in the planning stage, arose from questions ignited by astronomers seeking to answer age-old questions about our universe using previous observatories. What questions might Webb observations raise now that will turn our curiosity to things unimagined? We will soon begin to know how Webb will transform our understanding of the universe.

“On a personal level, my family was recently blessed with the arrival of our first grandchild. Watching her awaken to her surroundings rejuvenates the world for me. Anyone who has been a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or had the fortune to spend time with infants and toddlers may have experienced this joy in seeing the curiosity and interest of someone experiencing fresh and novel sights and sounds. With each blink and head turn, they learn more about the place they live, constantly developing and improving their own conceptions about what different and initially strange things are and how they relate to them. With each blink and head turn, their new perspective recalls for us distant memories when all was new and exciting in the world. These joyful moments of seeing things for the first time through the eyes of a child are experienced at the individual level and in small family gatherings. Rarer are the moments when we can collectively experience this rush of discovery and wonder. The James Webb Space Telescope will give us a fresh and powerful set of eyes to examine our universe.


The world is about to be new again.”

Part of the Webb team in front of a full-scale model at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in 2005. Credit: NASA

Eric Smith, Webb program scientist, NASA Headquarters