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Very soon, humanity will see the deepest images of the universe ever captured. In two weeks, the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) — NASA’s super-expensive, super-powerful deep space optical imager — will release its first color images, and agency officials suggested today that could be just the beginning. .

“This is further than humanity has ever seen,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said at a media briefing on Wednesday (called because he had tested positive for COVID-19 the night before). “We’re just now beginning to understand what Webb can and will do.”

NASA launched James Webb last December; since then, it has been running a specialized startup process that involves careful adjustment of all 18 of its massive mirror segments. A few months ago, NASA shared a “selfie” highlighting the successful operations of the IR camera and primary mirrors. Earlier this month, the agency said the telescope’s first images will be ready for public debut on July 12 at 10:30 a.m. ET.

One aspect of the universe that JWST will reveal is exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system, especially their atmospheres. This is the key to understanding whether there are other planets similar to ours in the universe, or whether life can be found on planets under atmospheric conditions different from those on Earth. And Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, confirmed that images of an exoplanet’s atmospheric spectrum will be shared with the public on July 12.

Essentially, James Webb’s extraordinary ability to capture the infrared spectrum means it will be able to detect small molecules such as carbon dioxide. This allows scientists to actually investigate whether and how atmospheric compositions shape the ability for life to emerge and develop on a planet.

NASA officials also shared more good news: The agency’s estimates of the telescope’s excess fuel capacity were spot on, and JWST will be able to capture images of space for about 20 years.

“Not only will those 20 years allow us to dive deeper into history and time, but we will also go deeper into science because we will have the opportunity to learn and grow and make new observations,” NASA said. -deputy administrator Pam Melroy.

JWST hasn’t had an easy ride into deep space. The entire project nearly fell through, Nelson said, after funds ran out and Congress considered canceling it entirely. It also faced numerous delays due to technical difficulties. When it reached space, it was promptly pinged by a micrometeoroid, an event that certainly made any NASA official shudder.

But overall, it was “an amazing six months,” Webb project manager Bill Ochs confirmed.

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