The Lonely Work of Picking the Universe’s Best Astronomy Pictures

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Even reaching this point had taken decades of planning, threatened cancellations, delays upon delays, a pandemic and a round of harrowing reverse origami that was needed to unfold the telescope in deep space without breaking it. In Baltimore, this group’s task was a mix of on-the-fly science, public communication and brand management: Blow everyone’s mind, show policymakers what all those appropriations had paid for, and assure the rest of the scientific world that yes, some of the universe’s most elusive secrets might at long last be within reach.

The new telescope’s still-functioning predecessor, Hubble — now 32 years old, solidly in the millennial generation — had underscored the stakes. Hubble’s first-look images made it obvious that its mirror was flawed, angering Congress and turning the project into a punchline. But after successful repairs, scientists working on Hubble went on to crank out jaw-dropping, proto-viral photos of galaxies and nebulae like the “Pillars of Creation,” inspiring countless careers in the sciences. (Mine included: Before becoming a science journalist, I spent two years as a data analyst for Hubble, which is also run out of the Space Telescope Science Institute.)

But James Webb is another beast altogether, so distinctive and advanced in its capabilities that even veteran astronomers had little idea what to expect of the images it would yield. Much of that is because the Webb operates in infrared wavelengths. At these frequencies, inaccessible to human eyes, clouds that look solid to Hubble dissolve into wisps of cirrus, distant galaxies grow brighter, new details rise out from the black, and space itself is set aglow by the light of organic molecules coughed out in the last gasps of dying stars.

Simply showing off this stuff would demand a distinct color palette and style. NASA wanted to start pushing out the first images within six weeks of the telescope’s coming online. And while staring into the abyss of the cosmic sublime for weeks on end would have its perks, the cone of silence around the project could also prove lonely.

In early June, for example, Klaus Pontoppidan, the astronomer leading this early release team, was the first human to download the new telescope’s full “deep field” view. This long, probing look at distant galaxies peers further back toward the start of time and the edge of space than any instrument of humanity has ever managed. “I was sitting there, staring at it for two hours, and then desperately, desperately wanting to share it with someone,” he said. “But I couldn’t.”

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