But the speed at which JWST has made discoveries is due to more than its intrinsic capabilities. Astronomers prepared for years for the observations it would make, developing algorithms that can quickly turn their data into usable information. Much of the data is open access, allowing the astronomical community to review it almost as quickly as it arrives. Its operators have also built on the lessons learned from the telescope’s predecessor, Hubble, filling out their observing schedule as much as possible.
For some, the sheer volume of extraordinary data has come as a surprise. “It was more than we expected,” says Heidi Hammel, NASA interdisciplinary scientist for JWST and vice president for science at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, DC. “Once we got into operational mode, it was just non-stop. Every hour we were looking at a galaxy or an exoplanet or a star formation. It was like a fire hose.”
Now, months later, JWST continues to send reams of data to astonished astronomers on Earth, hopefully transforming our understanding of the distant universe, exoplanets, planet formation, galactic structure, and much more. Not everyone has enjoyed the flurry of activity, which has at times reflected an emphasis on speed over the scientific process, but there is no doubt that JWST is captivating audiences around the world at a breakneck pace. The floodgates have opened and will not close any time soon.
Opening the pipe
JWST orbits the sun around a stable point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. Its giant gold-coated primary mirror, which is as tall as a giraffe, is shielded from the sun’s glare by a tennis-court-sized sunshade, allowing unprecedented views of the universe in infrared light.
The telescope was a long time coming. First conceived in the 1980s, it was once planned for release around 2007 at a cost of $1 billion. But its complexity caused long delays, eating up money until at one point it was dubbed “the telescope that ate astronomy.” When JWST was finally released, in December 2021, its estimated cost had skyrocketed to nearly $10 billion.
Even after launch, there have been moments of anxiety. The telescope’s journey to its destination location beyond the orbit of the moon took a month, and hundreds of moving parts were required to deploy its various components, including its massive sunshade, which is needed to keep infrared-sensitive instruments cool. .