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What are the real colors of images from the JWST?

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has earned fame for capturing our universe with unparalleled precision and sensitivity. Its images are beautiful apart from being scientifically useful. From the pink, purple and orange of Cassiopeia A to the gold and blue of the Southern Ring Nebula, JWST images present the universe in brilliant colors.

The images are so very stunning, you might wonder, —do these celestial objects really look that colorful? What would they look like if we could gaze at themthem with our own eyes, instead of through a telescope?”The quickest answer is, we don’t know,” said Alyssa Pagan. Alyssa Pagan is part of the team that works to bring color to the JWST images. She is a science visuals developer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI).

JWST looks at the universe in wavelengths of light that are longer than that of red light, meaning it is an infrared telescope. Red light has the longest wavelength we can detect with our eyes.If you got to look directly at these objects, you might see something closer to images from telescopes that depend on visual light, for instance the Hubble Space Telescope, Pagan stated. But even that comparison isn’t quite precise, since Hubble is far bigger and more sensitive than the human eye. Moreover, visual-light telescopes might capture dissimilar features of an image than an infrared telescope would, even when concentrated on the same target.

So how are the colors for these spectacular images selected, then? James Webb Space Telescope targets are viewed through quite a few filters attached to the telescope, which “see” in a certain range of wavelengths of infrared light. JWST’s Near Infrared Camera, the telescope’s key camera, has six filters, all of which capture somewhat different images. Combining these images into a composite lets Pagan and Joe DePasquale (another science visual developer at the STScI for JWST), to fashion the full-color images.

When DePasquale and Pagan first get the images, they appear in black and white. The colors are added to the image later on, as the information from the different filters are translated into the spectrum of visible light, Pagan clarified. The lengthiest wavelengths appear red, while the smaller wavelengths are blue or purple.”We are using that relationship with wavelengths and the color of light, and we’re just applying that to the infrared,” Pagan said.

Once every color has been added to the image, it might go through some further alterations. At times, the original colors can make an image look dustyor faded, and the colors are made more vivid for sharper quality.


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