With release the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope on July 12 (and the sneaky revelation of US President Joe Biden (July 11) NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency have demonstrated that a $10 billion, 1 million mile from Earth, two-decade long dream range actually works. And it works flawlessly. Just take a check out the improved visuals Webb provided over its predecessor, Hubble. They are visceral masterpieces that make us contemplate the magnificence of the universe and contemplate an insignificant corner of our solar system.
But what we saw in early July was only the preface of the JWST book. It will be the chapters that follow that will write his legacy.
Although the telescope’s first full-color results were excellent, they are only a taste of the instrument’s capabilities. In truth, we may not even have the words to describe what’s to come, because the Hubble Space Telescope’s first light image could not foreshadow the stunning deep fields that will one day plaster the walls of astronomy departments, or the nebulae that would inspire poetry.
But maybe we could to judge some scenes of JWST’s future, as despite the telescope’s publicity, scientists have been lining up for years to use it.
Scientists are already gearing up to point them at mind-blowing phenomena: massive black holes, collapsing galaxy mergers, luminescent binaries emitting smoky signals, and even wonders closer to home like Jupiter’s icy moon Ganymede.
More precisely, the first few lucky scientists hold proposals divided into six categories, each carefully selected by the James Webb Space Telescope Advisory Committee and the Space Telescope Science Institute in November 2017 – not to mention more than 200 international projects independently awarded by the telescope and those who are ready to join the waiting list.
But the initial cadre of JWST space explorers is intended to be a win-win for scientists and industry. These studies will create datasets, baselines, practical life hacks, and generally prepare the tools of the performance machine for whatever comes next. For great moments that will go down in history.
“In order to realize the full scientific potential of the James Webb Space Telescope, it is essential that the scientific community rapidly learns to use its instruments and capabilities,” says the director’s early-release science program page, which was compiled to select which investigators will test JWST during the first 5 months of scientific operation (after the telescope’s 6-month commissioning period).
Looking at the list raised my expectations – and I bet they will raise yours too.
Here is an excerpt.
Turning the page for JWST
About 3.5 billion light-years from Earth lies a huge galaxy cluster called Abell 2744, also known as Pandora’s Cluster.
You could say this is it perfect a starting candidate for JWST because it is part of the ancient, distant universe. NASA’s next-generation telescope contains a large amount of infrared imaging equipment that has access to light emanating from deep space—light that cannot be seen by the human eye or standard optical telescopes. It’s a scientific-exploratory match made in heaven.
So a crew of investigators plans to observe what’s going on in this brilliant cluster of galaxies, hidden from human sight but vital to the advancement of astrophysics.
They plan to use two of them JWST toolscalled the Near-Infrared Spectrograph and the Near Infrared Imager and the Slitless Spectrograph, both of which can simply decode the chemical composition of distant worlds stuck in the infrared zone we cannot cross.
But JWST is not just prescient. It can turn on reading glasses and also scan things around it.
Therefore, another team is more interested in how to navigate phenomena in our own cosmic neighborhood. Their plans say they will characterize Jupiter’s cloud layers, winds, composition, temperature structure and even aurora activity – aka the Jovian version of our northern lights.
This research bit is almost ready to use All of JWST’s pioneering infrared equipment: Nirspec, Niriss, as well as the Near-Infrared Camera — JWST’s alpha imager — and the Mid-Infrared Camera (MIRI), which, as you might guess, specializes in detecting mid-infrared light. “Thus, our program will demonstrate the capabilities of the JWST 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.
Some work on Jupiter has already been done, according to the project status report, and observation windows continue through August. In addition, Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, the largest in the Solar System, and the extremely active Io are also to be investigated using MIRI. The latter is particularly interesting as scientists I hope to solve Io’s volcanoes and compare Webb’s views with classical views.
Next up are dust scientists. But not just any dust. Star dust.
We know that dust is a major ingredient in the formation of the stars and planets that decorate our universe, but we’re still foggy about the timeline they followed to get us to where we are today—especially since so much of what’s essential to us—dust existence is scattered in the early universe. And the early universe is illuminated by pure infrared light.
I see. Exactly what JWST can – and will – delve into.
To unravel the story of stardust is to create an understanding of the building blocks of our cosmic universe—just as studying atoms opens up knowledge about bits of matter. And as Carl Sagan once said: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of stellar matter. We are the universe’s way of knowing itself.”
Perhaps JWST can help the universe in its quest for introspection.
Wait until JWST sees it
Over the last many months, as a science writer in general, I’ve seen one striking sentiment repeat itself. “Wait until the James Webb Space Telescope sees it.
Not exactly in those words, but definitely in that tone.
For example, in April, the Hubble Space Telescope reached a record-breaking milestone when it delivered an image of the most distant star ever seen from deep space. AND a star beauty named Earendelwhich aptly translates to “morning star” in Old English.
“Study Earendel will be a window into an era of the universe that we don’t know, but that led to everything we know,” Brian Welch, one of the discovery astronomers at Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement.
But remember how JWST is armed to study the ancient, invisible universe? Exactly. The study’s authors are set to take a look at Earendel through JWST’s lens, hopefully confirming whether it is indeed just one stellar body and quantifying what kind of aurora it is.
JWST could also solve the puzzling puzzle posed by Neptune, the gas blue ornament of our solar system: chills 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,” Leigh Fletcher, co-author of the mystery study and a planetary scientist at the university. from Leicester, he said in a statement.
There’s also the intrigue of decoding the violent majesties of our cosmic realm: supermassive black holes—and even a strange, many-billion-year-old, growing progenitor of black holes.
“Webb will have the power to definitively determine how common these fast-growing black holes really are,” Seiji Fujimoto, one of the astronomers involved in the discovery at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute, said in a statement.
And finally, I would say that the most amazing aspect of JWST – at least to me – is that it is currently the best attempt to find evidence of extraterrestrial life. Aliens.
Some scientists are even prematurely defensive false positive organic matter that the JWST software could capture so as not to alarm the general public (me) when that day comes. But if that day comes, our jaws will no doubt drop and our pulses will quicken, clearly making July 12 a mild memory.
And even if that day doesn’t come, it won’t be long before NASA’s new space muse sends back a field-changing image as Hubble’s first deep field in 1995 — one we can’t yet understand.