How the James Webb Space Telescope Shattered the Universe
But the speed at which JWST has made discoveries is due to more than its intrinsic capabilities. Astronomers prepared for years for the observations it would make, developing algorithms that could quickly turn its data into usable information. Much of the data is open access, allowing the astronomy community to wade through it almost as quickly as it arrives. Its operators also learned from the telescope’s predecessor, Hubble, by filling out its observing schedule as much as possible.
For some, the sheer volume of extraordinary data came as a surprise. “It was more than we expected,” says Heidi Hammel, NASA interdisciplinary scientist for JWST and vice president for science at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, DC. “Once we went into operational mode, it was just non-stop. Every hour we were looking at a galaxy or an exoplanet or a star formation. It was like a fire hose. »
Now, months later, JWST continues to send tons of data to astonished astronomers on Earth, and it should transform our understanding of the distant universe, exoplanets, planet formation, galactic structure and more. Again. Not everyone enjoyed the flurry of activity, which at times reflected an emphasis on speed over the scientific process, but there is no doubt that the JWST is enchanting audiences around the world at a blistering pace. The floodgates have opened – and they’re not closing anytime soon.
JWST orbits the sun around a stable point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. Its giant gold-coated primary mirror, as tall as a giraffe, is shielded from the sun’s glare by a tennis-court-sized sunshade, allowing unprecedented views of the universe in light. infrared.
The telescope was late in coming. First designed in the 1980s, it was once planned to launch around 2007 at a cost of $1 billion. But its complexity caused major delays, eating up money until at some point it was dubbed “the telescope that ate astronomy”. When JWST finally launched, in December 2021, its estimated cost had ballooned to nearly $10 billion.
Even after launch, there were moments of anxiety. The telescope’s journey to its target location beyond the moon’s orbit took a month, and hundreds of moving parts were required to deploy its various components, including its huge sunshade, which is needed to keep infrared-sensitive instruments cool.