But the speed with which the JWST made discoveries is due to more than its intrinsic capabilities. Astronomers have prepared for years for the observations they will make, developing algorithms that can quickly turn their data into usable information. Much of the data is accessible, allowing the astronomical community to comb through it almost as fast as it can. Its operators also drew on lessons learned from the telescope’s predecessor, Hubble, and packed its observational schedule as closely as possible.
For some, the extraordinary volume of data came as a surprise. “It was more than we expected,” says Heidi Hamill, a NASA multidisciplinary scientist at JWST and vice president for science at the Association of Universities for Astronomy Research in Washington, D.C. “Once we got into operational mode, it was just a stop. We were looking hourly at a galaxy, an exoplanet, or star formation. It was like a firehose.”
Now, months later, the JWST continues to send reams of data to astonished astronomers on Earth, and is expected to transform our understanding of the distant universe, exoplanets, planet formation, galaxy structure, and much more. 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 JWST fascinates audiences around the world at a tremendous pace. The gates have opened – and they won’t be closing anytime soon.
Open the tube
The James Webb Space Telescope orbits the Sun at a stable point 1.5 million km from Earth. Its giant, gold-plated primary mirror, the height of a giraffe, is shielded from the sun’s glare by a tennis court-sized sun visor, allowing unprecedented views of the universe in infrared light.
was the telescope long time coming. It was first designed in the 1980s and was planned to be launched once circa 2007 at a cost of $1 billion. But its complexity caused long delays, and gobbled up money until sometime it was dubbed “The telescope that ate astronomy.” When JWST finally launched, in December 2021, its estimated cost ballooned to Almost 10 billion dollars.
Even after the launch, there were anxious moments. The telescope’s flight to its target location outside the lunar orbit took a month, and hundreds of moving parts were required to deploy its various components, including an enormous sun visor, which is needed to keep infrared-sensitive instruments cool.