In a joint effort by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched on December 25, 2021 to a distance a million miles from Earth. It is the most powerful telescope to date and will use infrared resolution to see objects no other device has been able to detect.
On July 12, the first images will be released to the public. To help understand the significance of this moment, I reached out to two astronomers intimately involved in the project.
Astrophysicist James Bullock is a member and former Chair of the JWST Users Committee, which ensures operations proceed as expected to maximize the observatory’s scientific performance. Bullock is also Dean of the School of Physical Sciences and professor of astrophysics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine.
“JWST is going to help our understanding of cosmic evolution in almost every field of astronomy, from the nature of black holes to the origins of life,” he said:
One key question is how and when did the first stars, black holes, and galaxies form after the Big Bang? How do beautiful spiral galaxies like the Milky Way assemble themselves over cosmic time? When and how did the heavy elements form and how did they come to assemble themselves in planets over time? How do the atmospheres of exoplanets compare to those of planets in our solar system? JWST is both a scientific and engineering marvel, one that we can take pride in as a species. The universe we’re poised to unlock is 100,000 times older than us. We’re going to see images of galaxies that existed before the Earth formed, before the atoms of carbon and oxygen in our bodies even existed. There are several things we know we’ll see with JWST, but the most exciting thing we’re likely to learn is something no one has imagined yet. Whenever we open a new window into the cosmos we learn something totally unexpected. That’s why we’re all so excited to see what this telescope can do.
Time on any new astronomical platform is instantly among the most sought-after resources in the astrophysical community. The epic leap forward represented by JWST only heightens that competition. Observational extragalactic astronomer Vivian U explains how the precious hours are allocated:
Telescope time is usually allocated by a panel or panels of reviewers from the astro community. However, as JWST is a brand new telescope, most people are not familiar with its capability. For the inaugural cycle (“Cycle 0”), the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) decided to offer telescope time to a small number of programs that would cover a wide range of science that could best demonstrate the observatory’s usage to all. Teams competed in this ‘Early Release Science (ERS) program’ with their best science ideas as well as ways to help the community learn about JW’s capability in order to be among the first to take data with the telescope. So my collaboration, the Great Observatories All-Sky LIRG Survey (or GOALS) team, competed and was selected to be one of the 13 ERS teams that have been awarded Cycle 0 JWST time and will be receiving data as early as July 12!
My observing program will target the supermassive black holes in several nearby galaxy mergers to understand how they connect with their host galaxies and regulate their evolution.
From detecting earth-like exoplanets to finding the earliest galaxies ever formed, astronomers hope that JWST will reveal the physics of the cosmos at unprecedented details.
In the wake of the great astronomical discoveries of the past, there was a hurry to minimize and humble humanity. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Copernicus and Galileo de-centered us, certainly. The cosmos was not about us; it was not our satellite, as it appeared to be. In the 20th century, Edwin Hubble helped de-center and shrink us further by identifying one other galaxy besides our own Milky Way (Andromeda). Then came more powerful telescopes—the 1963 Aricebo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the 1990 Hubble Space Telescope, the 1993 Keck I & II Twin Telescopes in Hawaii, the 2005 South African Large Telescope in South Africa, and the 2008 Gran Telescopio Canarias in Spain. The count of galaxies is now estimated in the trillions, each with up to half a trillion stars. Amid the vastness of all that is, astronomy is the one science that could say humanity is indeed of trifling significance.
But I’d argue the exact opposite.
The pessimist says, “In the eyes of astronomy, humanity is an insignificant speck.” The optimist sees it differently: “Humanity is the eyes of astronomy.”
I’m with the optimists on this one. As James Bullock said, JWST is a scientific marvel “that we can take pride in as a species.”
There may be beings in our universe more intelligent than Homo sapiens. Right now we don’t know for sure. But we currently know of no more complicated object than a Homo sapiens brain, with its hundreds of trillions of synapses connecting some 200 billion nerve cells. There is more complexity in a human toddler’s brain than in a thousand lifeless galaxies.
And consider that matter evolved for 13 billion years until—only a short while ago—matter became self-conscious and able to conceive of, then name, then ponder a thing called ‘the universe.’ And this self-conscious matter became adept enough to build a tool to send a million miles away from earth and float in the immensity of space, making that tool take pictures of the remotest past, when time itself was young.
Every glance at a night sky with our naked eyes, and every view of a night sky with a telescope, is time travel. It’s looking into the past. This new telescope will take us further back in time than we’ve been before, back to a period when the earliest galaxies whirred into existence. Isn’t it a tad impressive that humans can do this? Humanity is not inconsequential in the face of cosmic enormity. We are the eyes of astronomy.
Homo habilis—our two-million-year-old tool-making progenitor —might exclaim about our new JWST tool: “Congratulations on how far you’ve come as a species! Though in our day we might have thought so, you proved we were not insignificant, because we became you.”
So heads up, humanity. Widen your sparkling eyes in wonder. We have much to be proud of. We are not, by any earthly or galactic or cosmic calculus, insignificant. So says the James Webb Space Telescope—so say we all.
In addition to serving as a member and former Chair of the JWST Users Committee, James Bullock is Dean of the School of Physical Sciences and professor of astrophysics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine.
Vivian U is Principal Investigator of a JWST Cycle 1 program and Co-Investigator of one of the 13 Early Release Science programs to be released on July 12th. U is also an astronomer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of California, Irvine.