James Webb Space Telescope challenges artists to see in infrared

Enterprise nebulae
Visualizations of images from the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope could look akin to these from the Spitzer Space Telescope. Both telescopes are designed to see in the infrared. In this Spitzer image of the Enterprise nebulae, 3.5 micrometer light is in blue, 8 micrometer light is green and 24 micrometer light is red.

With an astronomer’s toolkit and an artist’s eye, Zoltan Levay has transformed raw data from the Hubble Space Telescope into stunning space vistas for almost a quarter century (SN: 4/18/15, p. 4). He’s now preparing for a new challenge: Working with light not visible to human eyes.

Levay’s next charge is the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2019. Unlike Hubble, which mostly views the universe in visible light, Webb will observe in infrared, with wavelengths too long for human eyes to detect.

“We’re translating this invisible light into the visible range, so we can visualize it,” Levay says.

The switch is worth making because the telescope will see further back in time than Hubble — possibly to the universe’s first stars and galaxies, whose light has been stretched by cosmic expansion.

But it also makes the most common question Levay gets — “What does it really look like?” — tougher to answer.

The James Webb Space Telescope will use infrared vision to see deeper into the universe’s history than ever before. The mirror’s segmented shape may leave a subtle imprint in the images.


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