What’s next for Webb? Scientists have already lined up to use NASA’s new telescope


With the publication of the The first images from the James Webb Space Telescope on July 12 (and a sneaky revelation by US President Joe Biden on July 11), NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency have proven that the $10 billion dream, 1 million miles from Earth and two decades in the making, actually works. And it works perfect. Just have a look improved visuals provided by Webb over its predecessor Hubble. They are visceral masterpieces that force us to contemplate the splendor of the universe and contemplate the negligible corner of our solar system.

But what we saw in early July was just the foreword to JWST’s book. It will be the following chapters that will chronicle his legacy.

While the telescope’s first full-color results were excellent, they are just a taste of the instrument’s capabilities. In truth, we may not even have words to describe what is to come, any more than the Hubble Space Telescope’s first light image failed to predict the amazingly deep fields that would one day plaster the walls of the astronomy department, or the nebulae that would cover the would inspire poetry.


Five galaxies locked in a dance form Stephan’s quintet. Images of the JWST published on July 12, 2022.


But maybe we can shut down some scenes from the future of the JWST, because despite the public novelty of this telescope, scientists have been lining up to use it for years.

Researchers are already poised to point it at phenomena that will blow your mind: massive black holes, shattering galaxy mergers, glowing binaries emitting smoke signals, and even wonders closer to home, like Ganymede, an icy moon of Jupiter.

More specifically, a few lucky first scientists have proposals broken down into six categories, each handpicked by the James Webb Space Telescope Advisory Committee and the Space Telescope Science Institute in November 2017 — not to mention the more than 200 international projects separately allotted time at the telescope and those willing to join the waiting list.

But the initial cadre of JWST space explorers is said to be a win-win for scientists and Scope. These studies will create datasets, baselines, practical lifehacks, and generally prepare the powerful machine’s instruments for whatever comes next. For the great moments that will go down in history.


An artist’s conception of the James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

“In order to realize the full scientific potential of the James Webb Space Telescope, it is imperative that the scientific community quickly learns to use its instruments and capabilities,” says a page about the Director’s Discretionary-Early Release Science Programscompiled to find out which researchers will test the JWST during the first 5 months of scientific operation (after the telescope has been in service for 6 months).

Reading the list increased my anticipation — and I bet it will increase yours, too.

Here is a snippet.

Changing sides for JWST

About 3.5 billion light-years from Earth lies a giant galaxy cluster called Abell 2744, also known as the Pandora Cluster.

You could say this is the Perfect Starting candidate for JWST as it is part of the ancient, distant universe. NASA’s next-generation telescope contains a wealth of infrared imaging equipment that can access light from the distant cosmos — light that neither human eyes nor standard optical telescopes can see. It’s a science exploration game made in heaven.

So a crew of investigators plans to watch what’s going on in this brilliant cluster of galaxies, hidden from the human eye but critical to astrophysical progress.

a bell

Abell 2744 imaged by combining X-rays from Chandra (diffuse blue emission) with Hubble optical light data (red, green, and blue).


They plan to use two of them The instruments of JWSTcalled Near-Infrared Spectrograph and Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph, both of which can easily decode the chemical composition of distant worlds stuck in the infrared zone that we cannot enter.

But JWST is not only far-sighted. It can turn on its reading glasses to also scan nearby things.

Because of this, another team is more interested in figuring out how to deal with phenomena in our own cosmic neighborhood. Their blueprints say they will characterize Jupiter’s cloud layers, winds, composition, temperature structure and even aurora activity – also known as the Jupiter version of our aurora borealis.

This research bit is almost ready to be used Everyone JWST’s groundbreaking infrared devices: Nirspec, Niriss, as well as the Near-Infrared Camera – JWST’s alpha imager – and the Mid-Infrared Camera (MIRI), which, as you can imagine, focus on detecting light in the mid-infrared range is specialized. “Our program will thus demonstrate the capabilities of the JWST instruments at one of the largest and brightest sources in the solar system and at very faint targets nearby,” they write in their summary.

Some of the work on Jupiter has already been completed, according to the project’s status report, and the observing windows will continue through August. MIRI will also study Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, the largest in the solar system, and the extremely active Io. The latter is particularly interesting, the researchers note hope to resolve the volcanoes of Io and compare Webb’s views to classical views.


Jupiter (center) and its moon Europa (left) are seen through the 2.12 micron filter of the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam instrument.

NASA, ESA, CSA and B Holler and J Stansberry (STScI)

Next, scientists focus on dust. But not just any dust. Stardust.

We know that dust is the main ingredient in the formation of the stars and planets that decorate our universe, but we’re still nebulous about the timeline they followed to get us to where we are today — particularly, because much of it is of vital importance to us -existence dust is scattered throughout the early universe. And the early Universe is illuminated solely by infrared light.

Aha. Exactly what JWST can – and will – respond to.

Unraveling the history of stardust means building an understanding of it Building blocks of our cosmic universe — similar to how the study of atoms opens up knowledge about chunks of matter. And as Carl Sagan once said, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star material. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

Perhaps JWST can help the universe in its quest for introspection.

Just wait for JWST to see this

In general, over the past few months as a science writer, I’ve witnessed the repetition of a remarkable sentiment. “Just wait for the James Webb Space Telescope to see that.”

Not exactly in those words, but definitely in that tone.

In April, for example, the Hubble Space Telescope reached a record-breaking milestone when it gave us an image of the most distant star we’ve ever seen from the distant Universe. A stellar beauty named Earendelwhich can be aptly translated as “morning star” in Old English.

“Studies Earendel will be a window into an era of the universe that we are unfamiliar with, but that led to everything we know,” said Brian Welch, one of the discovery astronomers at Johns Hopkins University, in a statement.


Earendel (marked with arrow) is positioned along a ripple in spacetime, giving it extreme magnification and allowing it to emerge from view from its host galaxy, which appears as a red spot in the sky.


But remember how JWST is armed to study the ancient, unseen universe? Exactly. The study authors are poised to look at Earendel through JWST’s lens, hopefully confirming whether it really is just a stellar body, and quantifying what kind of dawn star it is.

JWST could also solve a mysterious puzzle posed by Neptune, our solar system’s gaseous blue ornament: it is getting colder for no apparent reason. But “the superb sensitivity of the space telescope’s mid-infrared instrument, MIRI, will provide unprecedented new maps of the chemistry and temperatures in Neptune’s atmosphere,” said Leigh Fletcher, co-author of a study on the mystery and planetary scientist at the University of Leicester. said in a statement.

There’s also the allure of deciphering the violent majesties of our cosmic realm: supermassive black holes — and even a strange multi-billion-year-old nascent black hole ancestor.

“Webb will have the power to decisively determine how common these fast-growing black holes really are,” said Seiji Fujimoto, one of the discovery astronomers at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute, in a statement.

Hubble and James Webb Space Telescope images compared: see the difference

View all photos

And finally, I would say that the most intriguing aspect of JWST – at least to me – is that it is the best chance of finding evidence of extraterrestrial life right now. Foreigner.

Some scientists are even quick to resist it false alarm of organics that the JWST software might ingest, so as not to alarm the general public (me) when that day comes. But when that day comes, our jaws will no doubt drop and our heart rates will pick up, clearly taking July 12th as a mild reminder.

And even if that day doesn’t come, it won’t be long before NASA’s new space exploration muse sends back an image as field-changing as Hubble’s first Downfield in 1995 – one we can’t fathom yet.


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