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The James Webb’s Beautiful Images Actually Arrive in Black and White

So Chic

This just in: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a Tumblr girl, actually.

Since its launch in 2022, the JWST has dazzled the masses with spectacular photos of interstellar sights like the pillars of creation, exploding stars, and — checks notes — squirting moons.

While the public sees those images are seen in striking color, though, that's not actually how the JWST captures them. As Space.com reports, images snapped by the advanced telescope first arrive to researchers in black and white, and are then colored back on Earth by scientists who use data to make a well-educated guess as to what the cosmic bodies in the pictures might look like in the spectrum of visible light.

In other words, we have a pretty good idea of what these astrological sights might look like to the naked human eye — but we still don't know for certain.

"The quickest answer is, we don't know," science visuals developer Alyssa Pagan, one of the researchers who adds color to JWST at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), told Space.com. "We are using that relationship with wavelengths and the color of light, and we're just applying that to the infrared."

Infrared Vision

As Space.com notes, the JWST "sees" using infrared waves, which are outside the range of human vision. Infrared not only gives the JWST the power to see deeper into space, but also allows it to capture imagery and information that we couldn't possibly glean by peering through a regular optical telescope.

This is one of the ways that the Webb telescope differs from its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which like humans "sees" via visual light.

"The rainbow of light that the human eye can see is a small portion of the total range of light, known in science as the electromagnetic spectrum," reads the Webb's web(b)site," adding that telescopes "engineered to detect light outside the visible range" can "show us otherwise hidden regions of space."

But while the JWST's infrared vision is transforming the field of astronomy as we speak, the downside is the lack of visual color in its resulting photos. Thankfully, though, we have Pagan and the other folks at STScI, who work to infuse some extra zest into the telescope's groundbreaking cosmic snapshots, inviting viewers to engage with a bit more wonder than they might with a black and white image.

"We're just trying to enhance things," the researcher told Space.com, "to make it more scientifically digestible and also engaging."

More on space: We May Have "Misunderstood the Universe," Nobel Prize Winner Says