Image: The White House
For months (decades, really), space nerds have been anxiously awaiting the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, which sits a million miles from Earth, cost nearly $10 billion, has been in development since 1996, and is one of the most advanced cameras ever developed by humans. NASA, an agency that is good at rollouts, has been planning to show the first images from the JWST on Tuesday in a much-hyped event.
That plan seemingly changed Sunday, however, when NASA announced that the first image (singular) would be shown a day early in a "preview" by President Joe Biden, whose administration has been desperately looking for good news amid the end of bodily autonomy, mass shootings, soaring inflation, a war in Ukraine, an intractable Congress, etc. It’s hard to imagine how you screw up “look at this cool picture of space,” but the Biden administration did it, with a delayed, bizarre, and rushed rollout that featured various high-ranking politicians (including both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris) and a low-res image that the webcast didn’t even bother to make full-screen for reasons that are impossible to understand. The problems started before the stream began, with some (though not a lot) of space enthusiasts accusing the Biden administration of stealing NASA’s thunder. A “NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador” who is part of a NASA watch party at a planetarium in Iowa tweeted, for example, “I’m sorry…this is wrong. We have various organizations who are hosting and have been planning public events for months for Tuesday’s reveal and you are showing your hand early?”The webcast then started 70 minutes late (Biden later said he was planning for a trip to the Middle East), with viewers subjected to repetitive hold music and no indication of when the event might start. While everyone was sitting around waiting for the webcast, NASA posted pictures of the administration looking at the picture in the White House. The image then "leaked" because it was possible to change the contrast on the image to get a sense of what was to come.
When the webcast did start, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden gave speeches about the photo, how important science is, etc., without actually showing the photo. When the photo was finally, mercifully, shown, this is how the webcast (which maxed out at 720p resolution) showed it:
Then they changed to this shot:
At no time did the image show up as a full-screen image. At no time did anyone show the image from this very powerful camera at full resolution. At no time did the Biden administration compare and contrast this image to one from Hubble to show why or how this telescope is better than the one we already have. When NASA finally posted the image on its website, it posted a very low-resolution image with a file size of 139kb, which is the file size of images taken on, like, a flip phone from the early 2000s. And then, suddenly, it was over—the event ended abruptly after a few minutes, after an hour of hundreds of thousands of people waiting patiently for the big reveal. There were many complaints about all of this on Reddit, where users took the time to do the work that the Biden administration should have done. For example, several users made side-by-side or transition GIFs of this area of space as seen from JWST vs. how it looks from Hubble. The effect is staggering; with JWST, entire new clusters of galaxies appear. Some users likened it to “seeing ghosts.” Meanwhile, they posted links to the full-resolution image, which was posted on the Webb Telescope’s official website (which the Biden administration did not direct people to). These included 4K TIF and PNG files (26.74 mb! 28.51 mb!) more fitting of the telescope’s capabilities. “This is how they should have released the image. ‘Here is what we saw with Hubble…THIS is what we see with jwst,’” one highly-rated comment on Reddit reads. Another: Showing the damn image full-screen would’ve been nice for a FIRST IMAGE OF THE COOL NEW SATELLITE TELESCOPE!”“It was 98 percent political blustering with a cool slideshow image they didn’t even show at full size the whole time lol,” another wrote. The good news, of course, is that we’ll get more images today during the originally-planned reveal, and the JWST will be taking incredibly detailed images of the universe for years to come.