How JWST revolutionized astronomy in 2022

A collection of galaxies.

Part of the Wolf–Lundmark–Melotte (WLM) dwarf galaxy captured by the near-infrared camera of the James Webb Space Telescope.Credit: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Kristen McQuinn (UK), Image Processing: Zolt G. Levay (STScI)

The crowd in the auditorium began to murmur, then gasp, as Emma Curtis-Lake placed her slides on the screen. “Amazing!” someone dropped.

Curtis-Lake, an astronomer at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, showed some of the first results on distant galaxies from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). It wasn’t the last time astronomers started chatting excitedly this week as they looked at the telescope’s initial discoveries, at a symposium held at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland.

In just its first few months of science operations, JWST has provided amazing information about celestial bodies ranging from planets in the Solar System to stars in other parts of the cosmos. These discoveries have sharpened the desire of researchers to make more use of the observatory’s capabilities. Scientists are now crafting new proposals for what the telescope should do in its second year, even as they battle for funding and debate whether the telescope’s data should be fully open access.

White Knuckle Throw

JWST launched on December 25, 2021 as the most expensive, longest delayed, and most complicated space observatory ever built.. Astronomers held their breath as the $10 billion machine went through a complex six-month engineering deployment in deep space, during which hundreds of potential failures could have seriously damaged it.

But it works, and spectacularly. “I feel very lucky to be alive as a scientist to work with this amazing telescope,” says Laura Kreidberg, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany.

First out of the gatein July, a flood of preprints arrived on the early evolution of galaxies. The expansion of the Universe has extended the light from distant galaxies into the infrared, the wavelengths that JWST captures. That allows the telescope to look at faraway galaxies, including several so distant that they appear as they did just 350 million to 400 million years after the Big Bang, which occurred 13.8 billion years ago.

Many of the first galaxies detected by JWST are brighter, more diverse, and better formed than astronomers had anticipated. “It appears that the early Universe was a very deep galaxy maker,” says Steven Finkelstein, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin.

Some of these initial findings are being reviewed as data calibrations improve, and many of the early claims about distant galaxies await confirmation by spectroscopic studies of light from galaxies. But astronomers, including Curtis-Lake, announced on December 9 that they had already achieved spectroscopic confirmation of two galaxies that are farther away than any previously confirmed.

‘Amazing’ detail

In closer regions of the cosmos, JWST is yielding results on star formation and evolution, thanks to its sharp resolution and infrared vision. “Compared to what we can see with Hubble, the amount of detail you see in the Universe is absolutely mind-boggling,” says Lamiya Mowla, an astronomer at the University of Toronto in Canada. Thanks to the telescope’s keen eyesight, she and her colleagues were able to detect bright “flashes” around a galaxy they named Sparkler; the flashes turned out to be some of the oldest star clusters ever discovered. Other studies have revealed details like the hearts of galaxies where monstrous black holes lurk.

Another flurry of JWST discoveries comes from studies of exoplanet atmospheres, which the telescope can peer into in unprecedented detail.

For example, when scientists saw the first JWST data from the exoplanet WASP-39b, signals from a variety of compounds, such as water, immediately jumped out. “Just looking at it was as if all the answers were in front of us,” says Mercedes López-Morales, an astronomer at the Centro de Astrofísica | Harvard and Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now, scientists are anticipating data on other planets, including the seven Earth-sized worlds that orbit the star TRAPPIST-1. First results on two of the TRAPPIST-1 planets, reported at the symposiumthey suggest that JWST is more than capable of finding atmospheres there, although the observations will take longer to analyze.

JWST has even made its first planetary discovery: a rocky, Earth-sized planet orbiting a nearby cool star, Kevin Stevenson of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, told the meeting.

The telescope has also proven its worth in studying objects in Earth’s celestial neighborhood. At the symposium, astronomer Geronimo Villanueva of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, showed off new images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Scientists knew that Enceladus has a buried ocean whose water sometimes squirts out of fractures in its icy crust, but JWST revealed that the water column engulfs the entire moon and far beyond. Separately, engineers have also figured out a way to make JWST track fast-moving objects, like planets in the Solar System, much better than expected. That led to new studies, such as observations of the DART spacecraft deliberately hitting an asteroid in September, says Naomi Rowe-Gurney, an astronomer also at Goddard.

However, all of these discoveries are just a taste of what JWST could ultimately do to change astronomy. “It is premature to really have a full picture of its ultimate impact,” says Klaus Pontoppidan, JWST project scientist at STScI. Researchers have only just begun to recognize the powers of JWST, such as its ability to probe details in the light spectra of astronomical objects.

Applications are now open for astronomers to submit their ideas for observations during JWST’s second year of operations, which begins in July. The next round could result in more ambitious or creative proposals for using the telescope now that astronomers know what it’s capable of, Pontoppidan says.

Amid all the good news, there are still flaws. Chief among them is a lack of funding to support scientists working on JWST data, López-Morales says. “We can do science, we have the skills, we are developing the tools, we are going to make revolutionary discoveries but on a shoestring budget,” she says. “Which is not ideal right now.”

Available to everyone?

López-Morales chairs a committee representing astronomers using JWST, and her to-do list is long. It includes polling scientists on whether all telescope data should be made freely available as soon as it is collected, a move that many say would hurt beginning scientists and those at smaller institutions that don’t have the resources to tap into and parse the JWST. data immediately. Telescope operators are also working on a way to more efficiently stream their data to Earth via communication antennas, and fly them in a physical orientation that reduces the risk of micro-meteoroids crashing and damaging its primary mirror.

But overall, the telescope is opening up whole new fields of astronomy, says Rowe-Gurney: “It’s the thing that’s going to answer all the questions that my PhD was trying to find.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *