How the James Webb Space Telescope changed astronomy this year: NPR


The James Webb Space Telescope was launched on December 25, 2021. Its first images – like this one of the Carina Nebula – stunned researchers.

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The James Webb Space Telescope was launched on December 25, 2021. Its first images – like this one of the Carina Nebula – stunned researchers.

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

A year ago, the James Webb Space Telescope began its journey through space.

“JWST was launched on Christmas Day and was then a gift that took six months to unwrap,” said Jane Rigby, NASA astronomer and Operations Project scientist.


The Pillars of Creation were first photographed by Hubble in 1995. Webb’s image shows countless newly formed stars glittering among columns of gas and dust.

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The Pillars of Creation were first photographed by Hubble in 1995. Webb’s image shows countless newly formed stars glittering among columns of gas and dust.

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

After an initial calibration phase, the telescope began collecting data. And the first results amazed the astronomers.

“I’ve downloaded the data and I’m sitting in my pajamas … you know, it’s a pandemic, we’re all working from home,” Rigby said. “I pulled that data down and just started flipping through it, skimming through it. And it was so beautiful.”

The telescope has only been on its scientific mission for five months and is already changing astronomy. The telescope’s instruments have enabled it to capture previously unobservable planets, stars, and galaxies, both near and far.

NPR spoke to three astronomers in different disciplines of astronomy about how JWST advances research in their field. They all agree that JWST is a game changer and that there is much more groundbreaking research to come.

“The ring systems just pop out and they are beautiful”


JWST’s images of Neptune are among the clearest of the planet’s rings recorded in decades. The bright bluish object is Neptune’s large frozen moon Triton.

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JWST’s images of Neptune are among the clearest of the planet’s rings recorded in decades. The bright bluish object is Neptune’s large frozen moon Triton.

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Heidi Hammel is a planetary astronomer and interdisciplinary scientist in the JWST project. She joined the team in 2002 because she wanted to study the planet Neptune.

In September, JWST focused its mirrors on the ice giant.

“When I first saw the image on my computer screen, I was so emotional,” Hammel said. “I first started crying, and then I started screaming and calling all my relatives to look at this picture!”


This is the clearest view of Neptune’s rings in decades recorded by JWST. Observed here in near-infrared wavelengths, Neptune appears eerily white instead of blue.

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This is the clearest view of Neptune’s rings in decades recorded by JWST. Observed here in near-infrared wavelengths, Neptune appears eerily white instead of blue.

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Before JWST, Hammel said, astronomers had never observed Neptune’s ring system closely. The Voyager spacecraft flew past Neptune in 1989, but was only able to capture the brightest parts of the planet’s rings.

JWST’s instruments detected the rings with unmatched clarity.

“Boom! The ring systems just pop out and they’re beautiful,” Hammel said.

“Like stepping out of a virtual reality into the real world”

Outside of our own solar system, JWST has also helped astronomers observe the oldest and most distant known galaxies.

“For many years I have been looking at simulated data and trying to mimic what JWST would see. When I first saw the data, it was like stepping out of a virtual reality into the real world,” said Brant Robertson. Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Robertson is part of a team of researchers that has discovered the oldest galaxies ever observed. JWST’s instruments allowed his team to identify galaxies as old as 13.4 billion years – galaxies that would have formed less than 400 million years after the Big Bang, a tiny fraction of the lifetime of the Universe.


Hundreds of galaxies appear in this image, which combines near-infrared colors captured by Webb’s telescope with those of Hubble.

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Hundreds of galaxies appear in this image, which combines near-infrared colors captured by Webb’s telescope with those of Hubble.

NASA, ESA, CSA, A Pagan (STScI) & R Jansen (ASU)

“By finding these very early galaxies, we can learn something about our history, about the history of the Universe in general, but also about our homeland specifically,” Robertson said.

Robertson said while older telescopes like Hubble gave astronomers a glimpse of what was out there, JWST has expanded the scope of what kind of science is possible.

“It’s like opening a book that you’ve been wanting to see the end of but haven’t read the last paragraph,” Robertson said, “and then finally seeing the full story being revealed to you.

“Pretty much everything we do wasn’t possible before this telescope”

JWST Operations Project Scientist Jane Rigby also uses the telescope to study distant galaxies.

A naturally occurring phenomenon called gravitational lensing amplifies the light from the galaxies Rigby observes – combined with JWST, she was able to slice through cosmic dust to study how stars form in those galaxies.


Webb captures the image of a protostar, the beginning of a new star. The “hourglass” of dust and gas clouds is only visible in infrared light, the wavelengths Webb specializes in.

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Webb captures the image of a protostar, the beginning of a new star. The “hourglass” of dust and gas clouds is only visible in infrared light, the wavelengths Webb specializes in.

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“Pretty much everything we’re doing wasn’t possible before this telescope,” Rigby said.

Hubble’s instruments would not have been able to see through the dust obscuring these galaxies, Rigby said. In addition, JWST’s instruments allow her to study the material composition of these galaxies through spectroscopy, a technique astronomers commonly use to identify the chemical composition of objects in space.

“We’re studying where stars form in these galaxies with lenses in a way that’s ridiculously impossible with any other telescope,” Rigby said.

JWST has already proven to be an incredible tool for astronomers, but its biggest discoveries are yet to come, Rigby said.

“We’re just starting to get this barrage of newspapers announcing discoveries,” she said. JWST is used to study planets in our own solar system, atmospheres of planets in other solar systems, how stars die, how galaxies evolve, and more, Rigby said.


Shown here in unprecedented detail, a dying star is spewing gas and dust. Photos like this one from JWST will improve our understanding of how stars evolve.

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Shown here in unprecedented detail, a dying star is spewing gas and dust. Photos like this one from JWST will improve our understanding of how stars evolve.

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And although JWST is significantly more powerful than previous telescopes, Rigby says astronomers can still use Hubble to supplement observations from JWST.

“In a lot of ways, JWST was designed to do things that Hubble can’t, so they play really well together,” Rigby said. “The pitcher and catcher on your baseball team do different things.”

The telescope has enough fuel on board to last more than 20 years in space, Rigby said, so it’s possible it could survive its minimum planned five-year mission.

“I think next year will be even more exciting than this year,” said Rigby.

Finally, it will take time to sift through the data collected by the James Webb Space Telescope and see how much it can change our understanding of the many mysteries of the Universe.

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