This week, JWST marked its official one-year anniversary of carrying out science missions. It has been a revolutionary instrument, performing better than astronomers' wildest expectations, and has had a spectacular first year revealing the secrets of the cosmos like never before. Most telescopes celebrate anniversaries by releasing a special image and JWST did not disappoint. We sat down with some of the astronomers working on JWST to discuss what it may reveal in the next few months, and the excitement was more than palpable.
“I've been involved with JWST for more years than I care to remember, about 20 years,” Professor Tom Ray, from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, told IFLScience during a press briefing at the European Astronomical Society Meeting 2023 in Krakow discussing the telescope's first year.
When asked about the images taken by the telescope, especially the very first images, he told us that it felt like working for a spy agency. The images were shared among scientists but they were sworn to secrecy for about a week before the White House announced them. They couldn’t tell anyone, or even show their spouses.
“I have to say I was flabbergasted,” Professor Ray continued. “I was just amazed at the quality of the images themselves, really amazed! And the fact that everything went so well. That is astonishing. But it did. And we're reaping the benefits now. It’s quite emotional, actually.”
The panel of experts at the EAS23 conference also featured Dr Chris Evans, Dr Sandro Tacchella, and Dr Elisabeth Matthews, and when they started dropping hints about what’s next we're the first to admit we're desperate to know what we might see in the coming months.
“There is so much more exoplanet stuff coming. That was the striking thing about preparing for this is that so many people have results but aren't quite ready to share yet. They are on the way though,” hinted Dr Elisabeth Matthews, who is from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and works on exoplanets.
Dr Matthews' excitement centers around JWST's ability to study so many different worlds, from protoplanetary disks where planets form to the atmospheres of peculiar gas giants, and studying nearby Earth-sized worlds, like the TRAPPIST-1 system. There are seven rocky worlds around that star, and the space telescope has already looked at a few of those worlds but it’s still just the beginning.
“There's a planet in a disk where we can learn about how those two things interact. There are more observations in the TRAPPIST system, and I just got my own data from the program that I'm leading a week ago. So I don't have anything to share yet, but I'm very excited about it,” Dr Matthews said.
Professor Ray ramped up the excitement for the ability of the telescope to look at newly born planets. JWST can peer through the dust of stellar nurseries to see where stars first and then planets, within a few million years later, are born. It is estimated that 10 new planets are born on average in the Milky Way every year.
JWST can peer to the very core of nascent star systems, looking at regions within 1 astronomical unit (AU), which is the average distance between the Sun and the Earth. Like in the anniversary image above, which shows the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex (the closest star-forming region to Earth), the initial moments of star systems with new planets and complex energetic events such as jets are going to be heavily featured in upcoming research.
“There are a number of papers that I know are on the way, but I can't say anything yet. But let me put it this way: I think they're extremely revealing from the point of what conditions were like [at the beginning and at the center of the new-born star system],” Professor Ray teased in his answers to IFLScience's question.
JWST isn't just focusing on exoplanets, though. It has cast its mirror (the largest ever sent to space) towards the early universe. Due to the fact that the speed of light has a maximum speed, looking far into the cosmos is actually looking back into the past. With the space telescope, researchers have seen the most distant galaxies yet, as well as breathtaking deep-field images with tens of thousands of galaxies.
There will be bigger samples of the galaxy population, which will allow scientists to work out a better picture of how galaxies evolve, from the behavior of their supermassive black holes to where stars are forming in those very primitive galaxies.
“Something I think that we work towards over the summer is actually really looking at the spatial distribution of those stars, like the clumps. It seems that they're very clumpy and seems that the star formation is very episodic, very bursty, and then having very localized clusters that we can actually now resolve up to very early times,” Dr Sandro Tacchella, from the University of Cambridge, said of the upcoming results.
Dr Jane Rigby, JWST Senior Project Scientist, joked on Twitter that the traditional gift for a first anniversary is paper. Well, the many international teams are delivering on that with a huge output of research papers. The first year was a whirlwind of discoveries and clearly, it is only just the beginning.
Dr Chris Evans, Hubble/JWST Project Scientist and Head of the European Space Agency Office at the Space Telescope Science Institute, summarized what we can expect in the coming months.
“There are a lot of programs around both the galaxy evolution [in the early universe] and, as Elisabeth [Mathews] said, about the exoplanets," Dr Evans explained. "There'll be a lot more results coming through on the disks and on the star formation, where it's taken a bit longer to work through the analysis; Tom [Ray] said there are some exciting papers coming in that area," he added.
"I think we'll see more papers on the local universe, on looking at the stars in the [Milky Way], looking at the populations of stars and galaxies beyond our own galaxy, where again, it's taken a bit of time to work through the imaging and also the follow-up spectroscopy,” he finished.
From investigating if exoplanets are Earth-like and not just Earth-sized to peering back to the very formation of the first galaxies, JWST is doing it all. The telescope, which is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, has many years ahead to continue to change astronomy.