19 July 2022


Astronomy, Media Updates, News, Science, Space

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RHEA Group is celebrating the first release of data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is being made available through data archives in the USA, Spain and Canada. A RHEA-led consortium is responsible for the data archive at the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Science Data Centre (ESDC), located at the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) in Madrid, Spain.

Among the images made public by NASA and ESA on 12 July was the sharpest infrared image ever produced of the distant universe, featuring some of the most distant galaxies ever detected.

Six and a half months after the successful launch of the JWST on an Ariane 5 rocket, the first data from the complex telescope has been made available to scientists and the public.

Wednesday 13 July marked an important milestone for scientists, who were able to access data from the Early Release Observations for the first time. From 14 July, selected data captured during the commissioning phase of JWST started to be made publicly available from the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) in Baltimore, USA, ESDC in Spain and the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre in Victoria, British Columbia. RHEA engineers working at ESDC expected around 60 terabytes of data to be released to the public.

“This is very exciting for us,” said María Arévalo Sánchez, a RHEA DevOps Software and Database Engineer working at ESDC. “The team at ESDC started working on designing and creating the archive in 2017. Since 2019, we have been rehearsing working with sample data, including synchronizing our archive in Spain with MAST. We have been making adjustments to the user interface and applications to get everything right for this moment.”

Data is initially downloaded from JWST to MAST, which is where all the data is held. Once the data becomes public, it will also be stored at ESDC and in Canada. All metadata plus all of the public data is automatically synchronized across the three archives.

Engineers from RHEA have been contributing to the technical development of the archive at ESDC from the beginning. Since July 2021, a RHEA-led consortium has had full responsibility for the archive, including technical and operational support, working closely with ESA scientists.

Initial public images

The initial images released by NASA, ESA and CSA illustrate the capabilities of its four main instruments and the variety of data JWST can capture.

Image known as Webb's first deep field taken by the James Webb Space Telescope in 2022
Webb’s First Deep Field – the first JWST image released

The first to be released was an image known as ‘Webb’s First Deep Field’, which shows a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723 that includes the smallest, faintest objects ever observed, plus more galaxies in front of and behind the cluster. Due to its distance from Earth, this is actually how the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster looked 4.6 billion years ago. The picture is a composite made from multiple images captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) at different wavelengths over 12.5 hours.

Another image, dubbed the Cosmic Cliffs, shows the edge of a nearby star-forming region in the Carina Nebula. It reveals for the first time areas of star birth that were previously invisible, thanks to JWST’s sensitivity to infrared light, which allows it to ‘peer’ through cosmic dust.

Unlike missions such as Gaia, there will not be regular JWST data releases on specific dates. Instead, JWST data from individual science projects will be made public a set amount of time after it is made available to the scientists involved in each project – usually 12 months later.

Next level of complexity

“This is a far more complex project than Hubble,” explains Javier Espinosa Aranda, also a RHEA DevOps Software and Database Engineer at ESDC. “There is incredible pressure on everyone due to the high expectations surrounding the data. Someone explained the scale of the step up from Hubble to JWST as being the same as the step up between Galileo’s discoveries 400 years ago and the data produced by Hubble.

“This is reflected in the significant increase in the amount of data we are having to deal with, which requires much greater resources and has implications for how we offer previews of the data to users and manage any processes they want to run. We need to ensure everyone receives the correct information and that everything is consistent. We have closely collaborated with the teams at NASA and CSA to ensure the correct mirroring of all JWST data.”

All images © NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI