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How the James Webb Space Telescope changed astronomy in its first year

As Christmas approached last year, astronomers and space enthusiasts around the world flocked to watch the highly anticipated launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. Despite being a marvelous work of engineering, the telescope was not without controversy. From being so over budget and behind schedule to being named after a former NASA administrator accused of homophobia.

Despite the debate over the telescope’s naming and history, one thing has become clear this year. The scientific capacity of JWST is amazing. With its July 2022 scientific launch, astronomers have already unlocked new insights and solved mysteries on a vast range of cosmic topics.

The JWST’s most pressing aim, one of the most ambitious projects in astronomy’s recent history, is to look back at some of the first galaxies that formed when the universe was brand new.

Thousands of galaxies flood the near-infrared image of this galaxy cluster, SMACS 0723.

Because light takes time from its source to reach us on Earth, looking at very distant galaxies allows astronomers to effectively see the earliest galaxies that formed more than 13 billion years ago. You can go back in time to

Although there was some debate among astronomers about the accuracy of the first detections of early galaxies—the JWST instrument was not perfectly calibrated, so there is some leeway as to exactly how old the most distant galaxies were. did — a recent discovery is the idea that the JWST discovered a galaxy 350 million years after the Big Bang.

This makes these galaxies the earliest ever observed, and some surprises await, including being much brighter than expected. That means we still have a lot to learn about how galaxies formed in the early Universe.

These early galaxies are identified using surveys and deep field imaging. These images use Webb to examine large patches of seemingly empty sky. These regions lack bright objects like the planets of our solar system and are far from the center of the galaxy, allowing astronomers to look deep into space to spot these very distant objects.

JWST was able to detect carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet for the first time. Recently, we also discovered many other compounds, including water vapor and sulfur dioxide, in the atmosphere of planet WASP-39b. This not only means that scientists can see the composition of the planet’s atmosphere, but also how the atmosphere interacts with the light from the planet’s host star, as chemical reactions with light produce sulfur dioxide. You can also see if it works.

If we want to find Earth-like planets and look for life, learning about exoplanet atmospheres is very important. Previous generation tools can identify exoplanets and determine basic information such as mass, diameter and orbital distance from the star. But to understand what it’s like to be on one of these planets, we need to know about its atmosphere. With JWST data, astronomers can search for habitable planets far beyond our solar system.

Jupiter's rings captured by a space telescope.
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Distant planets aren’t the only thing that’s getting JWST’s attention. JWST has been used to study the planets of our solar system, including Neptune and Jupiter, and will soon be used to study Uranus. By looking in the infrared range, JWST was able to clearly capture features such as Jupiter’s auroras and the Great Red Spot. And because of the precision of the telescope, it was able to see small celestial objects even against the planet’s brightness, such as showing the rarely seen rings of Jupiter. Sharp images of Neptune’s rings were also captured over a period of more than 30 years.

Another major JWST survey this year was on Mars. Mars is the best-studied planet outside Earth and has hosted numerous rovers, orbiters and landers over the years. This means that astronomers have a fairly good understanding of its atmospheric composition and are beginning to learn about its weather system. Mars is so bright and so close that it is also especially difficult for sensitive space-based telescopes like JWST to study. But those factors made it the perfect proving ground to see what the new telescope could do.

JWST used both cameras and spectrographs to study Mars and show the composition of its atmosphere. This is almost perfectly in line with the model expected from the current data and shows how accurate the JWST instrumentation is for this type of investigation.

Another goal of JWST is to learn about the life cycle of stars, which astronomers currently loosely understand. They know, for example, that clouds of dust and gas form knots that gather more matter and collapse to form protostars, but exactly how that happens need more research. They are also learning about the regions where stars form and why stars tend to form in groups.

JWST is especially useful for researching this topic. Its infrared instrument allows us to see the interior of regions where stars are forming through dust clouds. Recent images show the evolution of protostars and the clouds they emit, examining regions of intense star formation, such as the famous creation pillars of the Eagle Nebula. By imaging these structures at different wavelengths, the JWST instrument can see different features of dust and star formation.

This image shows a spiral galaxy dominated by a bright central region. The galaxy has a blue-purple hue, with orangy-red regions filled with stars. Also visible is a large diffraction spike, appearing as a pattern of stars over the central region of the galaxy.Many stars and galaxies fill the background
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Speaking of the pillars of creation, one of JWST’s greatest legacies that sticks in the public’s mind is the stunning imagery of the universe it captures. From the international excitement when the telescope’s first image was released in July to new views of iconic sights like the pillar, Webb’s images have been everywhere this year.

Take some time to explore the gorgeous Carina Nebula and the first deep space, plus the star-shaped shapes of the Tarantula Nebula, the dusty “tree rings” of the binary Wolf-Rayet 140, and the otherworldly glow. There are other images that are worth wondering. Jupiter seen in infrared.

And the images keep rolling in: Just last week, new images were released showing the bright center of galaxy NGC 7469.

It’s been an incredible year of discovery.

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