James Webb Space Telescope: A year on, what have we learned?

It is now a year since NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) released its first stunning images of the universe. As successor to Hubble, the JWST is the most powerful space telescope. It has provided us with the most detailed, breath-taking and distant views of our cosmos to date.

Webb’s first full-colour photo drop

After more than 25 years of development costing $US10 billion, Webb was launched in December 2021. It reached its destination more than 1.5 million kilometres above Earth on January 27, 2022 in orbit around the Sun – a location chosen because it is gravitationally stable.

Months of testing and calibration later, the JWST was ready to begin sending information to Earth.

I recall staying up till well after 1am Australian eastern time to report on the telescope’s first full-colour image release for Cosmos readers last year. It was an awe-inspiring night that provided beautiful glimpses of the universe, moving to tears some scientists who worked on the JWST project.

Galaxies are smeared by galaxy cluster and associated dark matter graviational lensing in jwst first deep field image
James Webb Space Telescope’s first “deep field” image showing gravitational lensing of distant galaxies. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI.

Among the images have been images of nebulae, galactic clusters and even new ways of looking at our own backyard, such as detailed images of our solar system’s gas giants.

Check out Cosmos’s Top 5 favourite JWST images from 2022.

Not just pretty pictures

But it’s not all just pretty pictures. Webb is tasked with providing astronomers, astrophysicists and cosmologists around the world with invaluable data to make sense of our dynamic and complex universe.

From day one, the JWST’s instruments have been providing such information. Included in its first colour photos on July 13, 2022 (Australian time), Webb provided a detailed analysis of exoplanet WASP-96 b’s atmosphere, nearly 1,150 lightyears away.

JWST has been able to peer back further and in more detail than any other space telescope. Late last year, it broke its own record by finding the oldest confirmed galaxy – from a time only 325 million years after the Big Bang.

It has also revealed planet-forming ingredients around low-mass stars and, for the first time, star-forming clusters in distant galaxies.

More on the horizon

On its first birthday, Webb celebrated by releasing a close-up image (pictured at the top of this article) of sun-like stars being born. The full-resolution image can be found on NASA’s website.

With no foreground stars between Webb and the cluster, 390 lightyears from Earth, this nearest star-forming region has been captured in high detail.

The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex is a relatively quiet and small stellar nursery. It contains around 50 young stars, all around the size of the Sun or smaller. Thick clouds of dust host many more still-forming protostars. The JWST image also shows huge jets of molecular hydrogen which occur when a new star first bursts through the dust.

“Webb’s image of Rho Ophiuchi allows us to witness a very brief period in the stellar lifecycle with new clarity,” explains Klaus Pontoppidan, a JWST project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. “Our own Sun experienced a phase like this, long ago, and now we have the technology to see the beginning of another’s star’s story.”

“On its first anniversary, the James Webb Space Telescope has already delivered upon its promise to unfold the universe, gifting humanity with a breathtaking treasure trove of images and science that will last for decades,” says Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington D.C.

Now the science begins

“In just one year, the James Webb Space Telescope has transformed humanity’s view of the cosmos, peering into dust clouds and seeing light from faraway corners of the universe for the very first time,” says NASA administrator Bill Nelson. “Every new image is a new discovery, empowering scientists around the globe to ask and answer questions they once could never dream of.”

A satellite in space
3D illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: alex-mit / Getty Images

Troves of data already sent down to Earth are being analysed by thousands of scientists around the globe. Some data sets will take years to analyse and may yet hold more discoveries.

And Webb is just getting started.

“With a year of science under our belts, we know exactly how powerful this telescope is, and have delivered a year of spectacular data and discoveries,” notes JWST senior project scientist and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center team member Jane Rigby. “We’ve selected an ambitious set of observations for year two that builds on everything we’ve learned so far. Webb’s science mission is just getting started – there’s so much more to come.”

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