How the James Webb Space Telescope transformed astronomy this year


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

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

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

“JWST launched on Christmas Day and then was 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 reveals countless newly formed stars twinkling among columns of gas and dust.

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

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After an initial calibration period, the telescope began collecting data. And the first results surprised astronomers.

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

The telescope is only five months into its science mission, and it is already transforming astronomy. The telescope’s instruments allowed it to capture previously unobservable planets, stars and galaxies near and far.

NPR spoke with three astronomers from different disciplines of astronomy about how JWST is advancing research in their area of ​​expertise. They all agree that JWST is a game changer and there is still a lot of groundbreaking research to come.

“The ring systems appear right away, and they look beautiful”


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

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

In September, JWST turned its mirrors on the icy giant.

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


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

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

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Before JWST, Hammel said, astronomers had never clearly observed Neptune’s ring system. The Voyager spacecraft flew by Neptune in 1989, but could only capture the brightest parts of the planet’s rings.

JWST’s instruments spotted the rings with unparalleled clarity.

“Boom! The ring systems appear right away, and they’re gorgeous,” Hammel said.

“Like stepping out of 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.

“I’ve been looking at simulated data, trying to mimic what JWST would see, for many years now. So when I first saw the data, it was like stepping out of a virtual reality to step 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 who have discovered the oldest galaxies ever observed. JWST’s instruments have allowed his team to identify galaxies that are 13.4 billion years old, 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 from Hubble.

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

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

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

Robertson said that while older telescopes like Hubble gave astronomers insight into what’s going on, the JWST has broadened the scope of the kind of science possible.

“It’s like opening a book that you’ve wanted to know the ending for a long time but held back from reading that concluding paragraph,” Robertson said, “and finally seeing the full story revealed to you.

“Almost everything we do was not possible before this telescope”

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

A natural phenomenon called gravitational lensing amplifies the light from galaxies that Rigby observes – combining this with JWST, she was able to cut through cosmic dust to study how stars form in these galaxies.


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

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

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“Almost everything we do was not possible before this telescope,” Rigby said.

Hubble’s instruments would not have been able to see through the dust that obscures these galaxies, Rigby said. Additionally, JWST’s instruments allow it to study the material makeup of these galaxies using spectroscopy, a technique astronomers commonly use to identify the chemical composition of objects in space.

“We’re studying where stars form in these lensed galaxies in a way that just isn’t possible with any other telescope,” Rigby said.

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

“We’re just starting to get this flood of articles announcing discoveries,” she said. JWST is used to study planets in our own solar system, the atmospheres of planets in other solar systems, the death of stars, the evolution of galaxies and much more, Rigby said.


Depicted here in unprecedented detail, a dying star expels gas and dust. Photos like this one from JWST will help deepen our understanding of how stars evolve.

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Depicted here in unprecedented detail, a dying star expels gas and dust. Photos like this one from JWST will help deepen our understanding of how stars evolve.

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

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

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

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

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

After all, it will take time to sift through the data collected by the James Webb Space Telescope and see how much it can alter our understanding of the many mysteries of the universe.

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