The James Webb Space Telescope’s next targets are potentially mind-boggling

With the release of the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope on July 12 (and a sneaky revelation from US President Joe Biden on July 11), NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency have proven that the two-decade-long $10 billion, 1 million-mile-earth dream scope actually works. And it works impeccably. Just take one watch the improved visuals Webb delivered over its predecessor, Hubble. They are visceral masterpieces that compel us to think about the magnificence of the universe and reflect on the negligible corner of our solar system within.

But what we saw in early July was just the foreword to JWST’s book. It will be the chapters that follow that will write his legacy.

Although the telescope’s first color results were excellent, they are only a taste of the instrument’s capabilities. In truth, we may not even have words to describe what is to come, as the Hubble Space Telescope’s first bright image could not foreshadow the astonishing deep fields that would one day endure the walls of the Department of Science. astronomy or the nebulae that would inspire poetry.


Five galaxies locked in a dance make up Stephan’s Quintet. JWST images published July 12, 2022.


But maybe we could deduct some scenes from the future of JWST because, despite the public recency of this telescope, scientists have been lining up for years to use it.

Already, researchers are ready to point it at phenomena that will blow your mind: massive black holes, shattering galaxy mergers, glowing binary stars emitting smoke signals, and even closer-to-home wonders like Ganymede, an icy moon of Jupiter.

Specifically, a few lucky early scientists hold proposals divided into six categories, each meticulously selected by the James Webb Space Telescope Advisory Board and the Space Telescope Science Institute in November 2017 – not to mention more than 200 separately awarded international projects. the telescope and those who are ready to join the waiting list.

But the initial framework of JWST space explorers is meant to be a win-win for scientists and scope. These studies will create datasets, baselines, practical life hacks, and generally prime the powerful instruments of the machine for whatever comes next. For the great moments that will go down in history.


Artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

“To realize the full scientific potential of the James Webb Space Telescope, it is imperative that the scientific community quickly learn to use its instruments and capabilities,” reads a page on the Director’s Advance Release Discretionary Science Programs, which was posted. place to choose investigators will test the JWST during its first 5 months of science operations (after the telescope’s 6-month commissioning period).

Reading the list raised my anticipation – and I bet it will raise yours too.

Here is an exerpt.

Turning the JWST page

Some 3.5 billion light-years from Earth lies a huge cluster of galaxies called Abell 2744, also known as the Pandora cluster.

You could say it’s the perfect starting candidate for JWST, as it is part of the old faraway universe. NASA’s Next-Generation Telescope contains a wealth of infrared imaging equipment that can access light emanating from the distant cosmos – light that neither human eyes nor standard optical telescopes can see. This is a science exploration match made in heaven.

So a team of investigators plans to observe what’s happening in this brilliant cluster of galaxies, hidden from human vision but vital to astrophysical progress.

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Abell 2744, imaged by combining X-rays from Chandra (diffuse blue emission) with optical light data from Hubble (red, green and blue).


They plan to use two of JWST Instrumentscalled 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 region that we cannot penetrate.

But JWST is not just clairvoyant. He can also turn on his reading glasses to scan nearby objects.

That’s why another team is more interested in understanding how to navigate phenomena in our own cosmic neighborhood. Their plans indicate that they will characterize the cloud layers, winds, composition, temperature structure and even auroral activity of Jupiter, that is, the Jovian version of our aurora borealis.

This research bit is about to use near everything of JWST’s revolutionary 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. “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 nearby,” they write in their summary.

Some of the work on Jupiter has already been done according to the project’s progress report and the observation windows continue through August. In addition, Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, which is the largest in the solar system, and the extremely active Io, should also be examined with MIRI. The latter is particularly interesting because researchers hopes to solve the volcanoes of Io and compare Webb’s views to classical views.


Jupiter, center, and its moon Europa, left, are seen through the 2.12-micron filter of the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam instrument.

NASA, ESA, CSA and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI)

Next come scientists who focus on dust. But not just any dust. Stardust.

We know that dust is the primary ingredient in the formation of the stars and planets that adorn our universe, but we’re still in the dark as to the timeline they followed to get us to where we are today. especially because many of these crucial elements for our -dust of existence are scattered throughout the early universe. And the early universe is illuminated only by infrared light.

Ah. Precisely what JWST can – and will – deepen.

Breaking down the history of stardust means building an understanding of the building blocks of our cosmic universe – in the same way that studying atoms unlocks knowledge about bits of matter. And as Carl Sagan once said, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of stars. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

Perhaps JWST can help the universe in its quest for introspection.

Just wait for JWST to see this

Over the past few months in general, as a science writer, I have witnessed the repetition of a striking sentiment. “Just wait for the James Webb Space Telescope to see this.”

Not in those words, exactly, but certainly in that tone.

In April, for example, the Hubble Space Telescope achieved a record milestone when it provided us with an image of the most distant star we have ever seen in the distant universe. A stellar beauty named Earendelwhich aptly translates to “morning star” in Old English.

“The Earendel study will be a window into an era of the universe that we don’t know, but which led to everything we know,” said Brian Welch, one of the University’s discovering astronomers. Johns Hopkins, in a statement.


Earendel (indicated by an arrow) is positioned along a ripple in spacetime that gives it extreme magnification, allowing it to emerge into view of its host galaxy, which appears as a red blob in the sky .


But remember how the JWST is equipped to study the ancient unseen universe? Exactly. The study authors are ready to look at Earendel through the lens of JWST, confirm whether it is truly a single stellar body, and quantify what kind of infant star it is.

JWST could also solve a mysterious enigma posed by Neptune, the gaseous blue ornament of our solar system: it is gets cold 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 plot of decoding the violent majesties of our cosmic realm: supermassive black holes – and even a bizarre burgeoning black hole ancestor billions of years old.

“Webb will have the power to decisively determine the true frequency of these rapidly growing black holes,” Seiji Fujimoto, one of the astronomers at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement.

Comparison of images from the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes: see the difference

View all photos

And finally, I would say that the most mind-blowing aspect of JWST – to me, at least – is that it’s currently the best chance we have of finding evidence of extraterrestrial life. Aliens.

Some scientists even prematurely guard against false positives of organic matter that JWST’s software could pick up, so as not to alarm the general public (me) when the day comes. But if that day comes, our jaws will undoubtedly drop to the floor and our heartbeats will race, unambiguously viewing July 12 as a sweet memory.

And even if that day doesn’t come, it won’t be long before NASA’s new muse of space exploration sends back a picture as changing as Hubble’s first deep field in 1995 – a picture we can’t still understand.

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