James Webb Space Telescope – Are They Images Or Pictures Of?


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Most likely, you have seen the remarkable capabilities of James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST). This technological and scientific marvel means the world as much as it does for scientists. It is evident from the conversations about the telescope that this is a scientific moment that transcends race and class borders. I am a weather and climate scientist but spent a significant portion of my career at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. I had the opportunity to interact with JWST and Hubble Space Telescope experts. Many people have talked about the awesome “pictures” from JWST. They are images technically. Let me explain.

In the grand scheme, it doesn’t really matter what they are called. It is crucial that we recognize the significance of this scientific wonder. I tweeted earlier in the week that the products from JWST are not just about pretty images, and encouraged fellow scientists to provide “so what” when they share them. By doing so, we counter the narrow perspectives out there that ask, “why are we spending all of this money to take pretty pictures of space?” My previous Forbes pieceIt explains why JWST matters for all of us.

As an educator, I am often open to sharing information you may not have considered. For example, most people have a misunderstanding of what “percent chance of rain means” (explanation HereYou may also think heat lightning is real (It’s not). As I shared with a friend recently that NASA refers to what you see as images when she posted about the “pictures.” I also realized that a teachable moment had reared its head.

Pichalab.comPublished in 2022 Essay entitled, “Whats the difference between a photo, picture, and an image? According to the essay, “In simple words, the difference between a photo (short for photograph) and a picture is if it’s taken by the camera it’s a photo. A picture on the other hand can be a photo as well but be also a drawing or a painting.” The term image, according to the essay, has broader meaning. The essay goes on to say, “An image is an optical counterpart or appearance of an object, as is produced by reflection from a mirror, refraction by a lens, or the passage of luminous rays through a small aperture and their reception on a surface.” By the way, a saved photo file on your computer is an image.

Computerhope.com defines an image as, “Any visual object that’s modified or altered by a computer or an imaginary object created using a computer.” Ethan Siegel masterfully explains, in a Big Idea essayThis is the image processing used to create the images NASA released this week. You can follow his explanation of JWST by understanding that image processing for this satellite telescope is fundamentally rooted within the electromagnetic spectrum. According to NASA’s Website, “Electromagnetic energy travels in waves and spans a broad spectrum from very long radio waves to very short gamma rays.” We see with our eyes using the visible (optical) portion of this electromagnetic spectrum.” The Hubble Space Telescope operates primarily in the optical and ultraviolet portions of the spectrum whereas JWST uses the infrared portion of the spectrum. NASA JWSTWebsite explains that the infrared region is useful because, “In particular, more distant objects are more highly redshifted, and their light is pushed from the UV and optical into the near-infrared….observations of these distant objects (like the first galaxies formed in the Universe, for example) requires an infrared telescope.” A key point here is that JWST is a complementary to Hubble rather than a “replacement,” as NASA routinely reminds us.

Satellite imagery is used to monitor weather phenomena, including hurricanes and tornadic thunderstorms. These products are also referred to as images, although I have heard it called pictures.


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