The crowd in the auditorium began to murmur and then gasp as Emma Curtis-Lake placed her slides on the screen. “Great!” someone blurted out.
Curtis-Lake, an astronomer at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, showed some of the first results from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on distant galaxies. It wasn’t the last time astronomers chattered excitedly this week as they marveled at the telescope’s first discoveries at a symposium at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland.
In just the first months of its scientific operation, JWST has provided amazing insights into celestial bodies ranging from planets in the solar system to stars elsewhere in the cosmos. These discoveries have fueled researchers’ eagerness to make better use of the observatory’s capabilities. Scientists are now working on new proposals for what the telescope should do in its second year, even as they fight for funding and debate whether the telescope’s data should be fully open access.
White Knuckle Start
JWST launched on December 25, 2021 as the most expensive, most delayed and most complicated space observatory ever built. Astronomers held their breath as the $10 billion machine underwent a complex six-month technical deployment in space that saw hundreds of potential failures that could have seriously damaged it.
But it works – spectacularly so. “I’m really lucky to be alive as a scientist working with this amazing telescope,” says Laura Kreidberg, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany.
JWST discovers some of the most distant galaxies ever seen
First out of the lock in July was a flood of preprints on the early evolution of galaxies. The expansion of the universe has stretched the light from distant galaxies into the infrared, the wavelengths that JWST is capturing. This allows the telescope to observe distant galaxies – including several so distant that they appear as they were just 350 to 400 million years after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago.
Many early galaxies discovered by JWST are brighter, more diverse, and better shaped than astronomers expected. “It seems like the early Universe was a very profound creator of galaxies,” says Steven Finkelstein, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin.
Some of these early results are being revised as data calibrations improve, and many of the early claims about distant galaxies await confirmation by spectroscopic studies of the galaxies’ light. But astronomers like Curtis-Lake announced on December 9 that they have already found spectroscopic confirmation of two galaxies that are more distant than any previously confirmed.
In closer regions of the cosmos, JWST provides 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-blowing,” says Lamiya Mowla, an astronomer at the University of Toronto in Canada. Thanks to the telescope’s sharp view, she and her colleagues were able to spot bright “twinkles” around a galaxy they dubbed the Sparkler; The sparkles turned out to be some of the oldest star clusters ever discovered. Other studies have revealed details like the hearts of galaxies where giant black holes lurk.
Another wave of JWST discoveries comes from studies of exoplanet atmospheres, which the telescope can examine in unprecedented detail.
JWST unveils first evidence of surprising exoplanet chemistry
For example, when scientists saw the first JWST data from exoplanet WASP-39b, signals immediately jumped out from a variety of compounds, including water. “It was like all the answers were in front of us just by looking at it,” says Mercedes López-Morales, astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now scientists are eagerly awaiting 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 suggest that JWST is more than capable of finding atmospheres there, although analysis of the observations will take more time.
JWST has even made its first planet discovery: a rocky, Earth-sized planet orbiting a nearby cool star, Kevin Stevenson of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, told the meeting.
The telescope has also proven itself for examining objects in the celestial environment of the earth. At the symposium, astronomer Geronimo Villanueva of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, presented new images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Scientists knew Enceladus has a buried ocean whose water sometimes spurts out of cracks in its icy crust, but JWST revealed the plume of water envelops the entire moon and well beyond. Separately, engineers have also found a way to get JWST to track fast-moving objects like solar system planets much better than expected. That led to new studies such as observations of the deliberate crash of the DART spacecraft into an asteroid in September, says Naomi Rowe-Gurney, an astronomer also at Goddard.
New images show fireworks as NASA spacecraft plowed into an asteroid
But all of these discoveries are just a taste of what JWST could ultimately do to transform astronomy. “It is premature to really have a full picture of its ultimate impact,” says Klaus Pontoppidan, JWST project scientist at STScI. Researchers are just beginning to recognize JWST’s capabilities, such as its ability to study details in the light spectra of astronomical objects.
Astronomers can apply now to present their ideas for observations in JWST’s second year of operation, 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, says Pontoppidan.
With all the good news, there are still glitches. Among the most important is the lack of funding to support scientists working on JWST data, says López-Morales. “We can do the science, we have the skills, we’re developing the tools, we’re going to make breakthrough discoveries, but on a very small budget,” she says. “Which isn’t ideal right now.”
Available for everyone?
López-Morales chairs a committee representing astronomers using JWST, and her to-do list is long. That includes asking scientists whether all of the telescope’s data should be freely available as soon as it’s collected — a move many say would penalize young scientists and those at smaller institutions who don’t have the resources to focus on Overthrow JWST and start analyzing data immediately. Telescope operators are also working on a way to have their data flow more efficiently through communications dishes to Earth and fly them in a physical orientation that reduces the risk of micrometeoroids impacting and damaging their primary mirror.
But overall, the telescope opens up whole new areas of astronomy, says Rowe-Gurney: “It’s the thing that’s going to answer all the questions that my PhD thesis was trying to find.”