On Monday, President Biden revealed the first photo from the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful observatory ever placed in orbit, showing a stunning cluster of galaxies in full color. not to be less, NASA released four other images. the next day represents nurseries for stars, clusters of galaxies, a particularly watery exoplanet, and a dying star.
While the images had various levels of awe, the most surprising part was that it was only the beginning. Webb has 20 years of fuel, which means we have decades of exciting photography and scientific discovery ahead of us. Of course, that just begs the question: What it is next for Webb?
Literally, the entire universe turns out. In fact, as amazing as the latest images were, they’re actually nothing compared to what’s to come. Eric Smith, a scientist with NASA’s JWST program, said as much at a news conference on Tuesday.
“They were more or less hands-on with the instruments,” Smith said, referring to the five published images. “We’re making discoveries and we haven’t really even started trying yet. So the promise of this telescope is amazing.”
While NASA hasn’t released a timeline of what Webb will observe next, here are some things we can expect from the space observatory next year:
Touring the Early Universe
Perhaps the biggest reason for the hype behind Webb is the space observatory’s ability to observe some of the earliest stars and galaxies ever formed. That means being able to observe celestial objects as they were shortly after the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago.
The image of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 presented by President Biden is one such example. Webb captured light from the region as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago through an ultra-deep near-infrared survey. Using its near-infrared spectrograph, an instrument that separates infrared light by wavelength into a spectrum, the observatory was able to collect data from one of the youngest galaxies in the field—which turned out to have been within a billion years after the Big Bang.
NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI
And remember: this is just the beginning. One of Webb’s primary missions is to study the early universe. That means we’re only just beginning to find some of the “youngest” space objects ever discovered. To that end, the entire mission of the JWST program is also focused on discovering how galaxies formed and evolved over the eons. Its instruments will also provide a look at the life cycle of stars, something the Hubble Space Telescope had trouble doing since it could only observe visible light.
Exploring exoplanets and solar systems
One of the images posted Tuesday was not a photograph of a celestial body at all. It was a graph showing the measurement of the water content in the atmosphere of a giant exoplanet called WASP-96b.
That may sound a bit disappointing considering the other images, but it actually showed off an important feature of Webb: the ability to study and look deeper into the atmosphere and conditions of exoplanets. This is crucial for finding regions of space that might be hospitable to life.
Faraway objects aren’t the only place you’ll look at, either. Webb will also look at our own solar system, including places like Mars, Pluto and Saturn, to give us an even more detailed look at what’s in our backyard. NASA even released an image captured by Webb of Jupiter yesterday using its main imager, the Near-Infrared Camera.
NASA, ESA, CSA and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI)
looking for ET
We can’t talk about a powerful space observatory without talking about the giant flying saucer-sized elephant in the room: aliens.
Since Webb can observe some of the most distant regions of space imaginable, many researchers hope that he will be able to find hidden exoplanets that are fit for life. These would be planets in the Goldilocks Zone, or the regions of solar systems that are far enough from their parent star to have liquid water. In other words, they are Just fine for life.
Some exoplanets that Webb could start exploring aren’t that far away, either. There are a few Earth-sized planets in a system orbiting a star 40 light-years away, called TRAPPIST-1. Olivia Lim, an exoplanet researcher at the University of Montreal, has taken time to use Webb in the near future to explore TRAPPIST-1 and its planets, several of which lie in the star’s Goldilocks Zone and represent some of our best chances to find signs of life
“The Trappist-1 system is unique”, Lim he told AFP. “Almost all conditions there are favorable for the search for life outside our solar system.”
NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez
Presentation of proposals
Lim is not the only one submitting proposals. Astronomers and scientists from around the world are clamoring to spend a little time at the space observatory while they can.
Over the course of its roughly 20-year lifespan, the JWST program will have annual calls open for researchers from all walks of life to propose projects and experiments for Webb to conduct. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which actually operates the observatory, will have the final say on who is chosen.
Think of it like auditions for your high school musical, but instead of participating in a shitty production of In the woods, you find out if you can study 13 billion year old galaxies, witness the birth of the universe and hunt aliens.
Webb operators have accepted 266 proposals for its first year of science observations, known as Cycle 1. One of the best aspects of this is that all accepted projects are online and easily accessible for your viewing pleasure. That means if you Really If you want to know what Webb will be doing in the next year, you can click on the STSCI website and see for yourself.
Along with what we’ve already covered in this article, Webb will take a close look at a series of supermassive black holes, probe dark matter, and study quasars.
As Webb orbits approximately one million miles from Earth, it won’t be alone. It has an army of engineers, scientists, and researchers on the ground who make sure things run smoothly. It’s also no mean feat when you consider that we can’t exactly send a repairman there if the worst-case scenario occurs.
Hopefully, though, if everything goes according to plan, we won’t have to worry about that at all. As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” To that end, NASA built Webb to be incredibly tough and capable of withstanding the harsh and unforgiving elements of space. This includes tools like your sun visor, which reflects large amounts of sunlight away from sensitive electronic devices.
Put another way: Webb won’t break because it was built to No break. This spirit was put to the test in May when a micrometeoroid hit the telescope. While there was minor damage, Webb’s design allowed him to withstand it and continue to operate.
While it may be a bit of comfort to some of us on Earth, you can sleep soundly knowing that Webb will continue to produce stunning images and even more amazing discoveries for the next twenty years. And even when he is finished, he will have laid the foundation for an untold amount of amazing science to be discovered for ages to come.