How JWST is revolutionizing astronomy in 2022

Part of the Wolf-Lundmark-Melotte (WLM) dwarf galaxy captured by the James Webb Space Telescope’s Near Infrared Camera.Credit: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Kristen McQuinn (RU), Image Processing: Zolt G. Levay (STScI)

The crowd in the auditorium began to grumble, then gasp, as Emma Curtis Lake put her slides on display. “surprising!” Someone blew up.

Curtis-Lake, an astronomer at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, was reviewing some of the first findings on distant galaxies from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). It wasn’t the last time astronomers started gossiping about teasing this week as they stared 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 insights into celestial objects ranging from planets in the solar system to stars elsewhere in the universe. These discoveries further galvanized researchers to take greater advantage of the observatory’s capabilities. Scientists are now drafting new proposals for what the telescope should do in its second year, even as they scramble for funding and debate whether the telescope’s data should be fully open access.

White knuckle release

JWST launched on December 25, 2021 as the most expensive, delayed, and most complex space observatory ever built. Astronomers held their breath when the $10 billion machine went through a complex, six-month engineering deployment process into deep space, where hundreds of potential failures could have caused serious damage.

But it works – and amazingly. “I feel really fortunate 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 floodgate, in July, came a rush of preprints about the early evolution of galaxies. The expansion of the universe has stretched the light of distant galaxies into the infrared, the wavelengths captured by alien planet Earth. This allows the telescope to spot distant galaxies — including many galaxies so distant that they appear as they did only 350 million to 400 million years after the Big Bang, which occurred 13.8 billion years ago.

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

Some of these initial results are being revised as data calibration improves, and many early claims about distant galaxies await confirmation by spectroscopic studies of the galaxy’s light. But astronomers including Curtis Lake announced on December 9 that they have already made spectroscopic confirmation of two more distant galaxies than have been confirmed before.

“Mindblowing” details

In the closer regions of the universe, the JWST scores on star formation and evolution, thanks to its sharp resolution and infrared vision. “Compared to what we can see with Hubble, and the amount of detail you see in the universe, it’s quite mind-blowing,” says Lamia Moola, an astronomer at the University of Toronto in Canada. Thanks to the telescope’s powerful vision, she and her colleagues were able to spot a bright “sparkle” around a galaxy they dubbed Sparkler. It turns out that the luminaries are some of the oldest clusters of stars ever discovered. Other studies have revealed details such as the hearts of galaxies where monster black holes lurk.

Another burst of JWST discoveries comes from studies of the atmospheres of exoplanets, which the telescope can examine in unprecedented detail.

For example, when scientists saw the first JWST data from exoplanet WASP-39b, signals from a group of compounds, such as water, jumped instantly. “Just looking at it was like, all the answers were in front of us,” says Mercedes Lopez-Morales, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics. Harvard and Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now scientists are desperately anticipating data on other planets, including the seven Earth-sized worlds orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1. Early results on two of the TRAPPIST-1 planets, reported at the symposium, indicate that JWST is more than capable of finding atmospheres there, though the observations will take longer to analyze.

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

The telescope has also proven its value in studying objects in Earth’s celestial neighborhood. At the symposium, astronomer Geronimo Villanueva at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, presented new images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Scientists knew Enceladus had a buried ocean whose water occasionally gushed out from fractures in its icy crust, but JWST revealed that the water column envelops the entire moon and beyond. Separately, engineers also came up with a way to make the JWST track fast-moving objects, such as the planets of the solar system, much better than expected. That led to new studies like observing the DART spacecraft intentionally crashing an asteroid in September, says Naomi Roe-Gurney, an astronomer at Goddard.

However, all of these discoveries are only a taste of what JWST could eventually do to change astronomy. “It’s really too early to get a complete picture of its ultimate impact,” says Klaus Pontopidan, JWST project scientist at STScI. Researchers are just beginning to learn about JWST’s powers, such as its ability to probe details in the light spectra from 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. Pontopidan says the next round could lead to more ambitious or creative proposals to use the telescope now that astronomers know what it’s capable of.

Amid all the good news, there are still some loopholes. Chief among these factors, López-Morales says, is the lack of funding to support scientists working on the JWST data. “We can do the science, we’ve got the skills, we’re developing the tools, and we’re going to make groundbreaking discoveries but on a very limited budget,” she says. “And that’s not ideal now.”

available to all?

López-Morales chairs a committee representing astronomers who use JWST, and their to-do list is long. It involves scientists surveying whether all telescope data should be freely available once collected — a move many say would hurt early-career scientists and those at smaller institutions who don’t have the resources to pounce on and analyze the data right away. Telescope operators are also working on a way to make their data flow more efficiently to Earth through communication dishes, moving it in a physical direction that reduces the risk of micrometeorites hitting and damaging its primary mirror.

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

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