It’s been five days since NASA realized that its $10 billion, 1-million-miles-from-Earth, two-decade-long dream, the James Webb Space Telescope, works. And it works so flawlessly, in fact, that its first ceremonial images are stunning. They’re visceral masterpieces that force us to think of the universe’s magnificence and reflect on our solar system’s negligible corner within.
But what we saw on July 12, 2022, was only the preface of JWST’s book. It’ll be the chapters that follow which will write out its legacy.
Even though the telescope’s first full-color results were excellent, they’re merely a taste of the instrument’s capabilities. In truth, we may not even have words to describe what’s to come, in the way the Hubble Space Telescope’s first light couldn’t foreshadow the astounding deep fields that would one day plaster astronomy department walls or the nebulae that would inspire poetry.
But we might be able to infer some scenes of JWST’s future because, despite this telescope’s public recency, scientists have been lining up for years to use it.
Already, researchers are set to point it at phenomena that’ll blow your mind: massive black holes, shattering galaxy mergers, luminescent binary stars emanating smoke signals, and even marvels closer to home like Ganymede, an icy moon of Jupiter.
More specifically, a lucky first few scientists hold proposals divided into six categories, each meticulously selected 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 awarded time on the telescope and those ready to join the waitlist.
But the initial cadre of JWST space explorers is meant to be a win-win for both scientist and scope. These studies will create datasets, baselines, handy life hacks and just generally prime the powerful machine’s instruments for everything that comes next. For the big moments that’ll go down in history.
“To realize the James Webb Space Telescope’s full scientific potential, it is imperative that the science community quickly learns to use its instruments and capabilities,” says a page about the Director’s Discretionary-Early Release Science Programs, which was put together to pick out which investigators will test out JWST for its first 5 months of scientific operations (following the 6-month telescope commissioning period).
Perusing the list has heightened my anticipation — and I bet it’ll elevate yours, too.
Here’s a snippet.
Turning the page for JWST
Some 3.5 billion light-years from Earth lies an enormous cluster of galaxies called Abell 2744, also known as Pandora’s Cluster.
One might say this is the perfect starting candidate for JWST, as it’s part of the ancient, faraway universe. NASA’s next-gen telescope contains a wealth of infrared imaging equipment that can access light emanating from the distant cosmos — light neither human eyes nor standard optical telescopes can see. It’s a science exploration match made in heaven.
Thus, a crew of investigators plans to observe what’s going on in this brilliant galaxy cluster, hidden to human vision but vital to astrophysical advancement.
They plan on using two of them JWST’s instrumentscalled the Near-Infrared Spectrograph and the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph, both of which can simply decode the chemical composition of faraway worlds stuck in the infrared zone we can’t trespass.
But JWST isn’t merely farsighted. It can turn on its reading glasses to scan nearby things, too.
That’s why another team is more interested in figuring out how to navigate phenomena in our very own cosmic neighborhood. Their blueprints say they’ll characterize Jupiter’s cloud layers, winds, composition, temperature structure and even auroral activity — aka, the Jovian version of our northern lights.
In fact, this research bit is poised to use nearly all of JWST’s groundbreaking infrared equipment: Nirspec, Niriss, as well as the Near-Infrared Camera — JWST’s alpha imager — and the Mid-Infrared Camera, which, as you might guess, specializes in mid-infrared light detection. “Our program will thus demonstrate the capabilities of JWST’s instruments on one of the largest and brightest sources in the solar system and on very faint targets next to it,” they write in their abstract.
Next up are the scientists focused on dust. But not just any dust. Stardust.
We know dust is the main ingredient in the formation of stars and planets that decorate our universe, but we’re still foggy on the timeline they followed to bring us where we are today — especially because a lot of that crucial-to-our – existence dust is scattered in the early universe. And the early universe is illuminated purely by infrared light.
Yup. Precisely what JWST can — and will — delve into.
Breaking down the story of stardust means constructing an understanding of the building blocks of our cosmic universe — similar to how studying atoms opens up knowledge about chunks of matter. And as Carl Sagan once said, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
Perhaps JWST can help the universe in its quest to introspect.
Just wait until JWST sees this
Over the past many months in general, as a science writer I’ve witnessed the repetition of one striking sentiment. “Just wait until the James Webb Space Telescope sees this.”
Not in those words, exactly, but definitely with that tone.
In April, for instance, the Hubble Space Telescope hit a record-breaking milestone when it delivered to us an image of the farthest star we’ve ever seen from the distant universe. A stellar beauty named Earendelwhich aptly translates to “morning star” in Old English.
“Studying Earendel will be a window into an era of the universe that we are unfamiliar with, but that led to everything we do know,” Brian Welch, one of the discovery astronomers from Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement.
But remember how JWST is armed to study the ancient, invisible universe? Exactly. The study authors are prepared to look at Earendel with JWST’s lens, hopefully confirm whether it really is just one stellar body and quantify what kind of dawning star it is.
JWST could also solve a mysterious puzzle posed by Neptune, our solar system’s gassy blue ornament: It’s getting colder for no apparent reason. But “the exquisite sensitivity of the space telescope’s mid-infrared instrument, MIRI, will provide unprecedented new maps of the chemistry and temperatures in Neptune’s atmosphere,” 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 intrigue of decoding our cosmic realm’s violent majesties: supermassive black holes — and even an odd, multibillion-year-old, burgeoning black hole ancestor.
“Webb will have the power to decisively determine how common these rapidly growing black holes truly are,” Seiji Fujimoto, one of the discovery astronomers from the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement.
And finally, I’d say the most mind-boggling aspect of JWST — to me, at least — is that it’s currently the best shot we have at finding proof of extraterrestrial life. Aliens.
Some scientists are even prematurely guarding against false positives of organic matter that JWST’s software might pick up, so as not to alarm the general public (me) when that day comes. But if that day comes, our jaws will undoubtedly drop to the ground and our heart rate will pick up, unambiguously deeming July 12 a mild memory.
And even if that day doesn’t arrive, it won’t be long until NASA’s new space exploration muse sends back an image as field-altering as Hubble’s first deep field in 1995 — one we can’t yet fathom.