The next phase of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will blow your mind

What. One week.

On Monday, President Biden unveiled the first photo from the much-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope — the most powerful observatory ever launched — showing a stunning full-color galaxy cluster. Not to be outdone, NASA released another four images the following day, showing stellar nurseries, galaxy groups, a particularly watery exoplanet and a dying star.

While the images were stunning on various levels, the most amazing thing was that this was just the beginning. Webb is fueled up for 20 years – which means we have decades of moving photographs and scientific discoveries ahead of us. Of course, the only question that arises is: what is next for webb?

Literally the entire universe, it turns out. While the latest images have been amazing, they are actually nothing compared to what is to come. Eric Smith, program scientist for NASA’s JWST program, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

“It was more or less practice runs with the instruments,” Smith said, referring to the five images released. “We’re making discoveries and haven’t even started trying yet. So the promise of this telescope is amazing.”

While NASA hasn’t released a timeline for what the Webb will be looking at next, here are a few things we can expect from the space observatory in the coming year:

Tour of the early universe

Perhaps the biggest reason for the hype behind the Webb is the space observatory’s ability to see some of the earliest stars and galaxies to ever form. That means being able to observe celestial objects as they looked just after the Big Bang almost 14 billion years ago.

The image of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 debuted by President Biden is one such example. Webb captured the light from the region as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago via an ultra-deep near-infrared survey. Using its near-infrared spectrograph – an instrument that splits infrared light into a spectrum by wavelength – the observatory was able to collect data from one of the youngest galaxies in the field, located within a billion years of the Big Bang.

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

And remember, this is just the beginning. One of Webb’s main responsibilities is exploring the early Universe. That means we’re just beginning to find some of the “youngest” space objects ever discovered. To that end, the entire mission of the JWST program also focuses on discovering how galaxies formed and evolved over eons. Its instruments will also take a look at the life cycle of stars – something the Hubble Space Telescope has struggled to do as it could only observe visible light.

Exploration of exoplanets and solar systems

One of the images released Tuesday was not a photo of a celestial body at all. It was a chart showing the measurement of water content in the atmosphere of a giant exoplanet called WASP-96b.

That might sound a bit disappointing given the other images, but it actually showed an important trait of Webb: the ability to study and observe the atmosphere and conditions of exoplanets in more detail. This is crucial for finding regions of space that might be hospitable to life.

Far away objects aren’t the only place it will look around. Webb will also be keeping an eye on our own solar system, including places like Mars, Pluto, and Saturn, to give us an even more detailed look at what’s in our backyard. NASA even released an image yesterday taken by Webb of Jupiter using their primary imager, the near-infrared camera.

NASA, ESA, CSA and B Holler and J Stansberry (STScI)

Search for ET

We can’t talk about a powerful space observatory without talking about the giant flying-saucer-sized elephant in space: aliens.

Because Webb can observe some of the most distant regions of space imaginable, many researchers are hoping it can find hidden exoplanets suitable for life. These would be planets in the Goldilocks zone, or the regions of solar systems just far enough from their primary star to have liquid water. In other words, they are precisely for life.

Some exoplanets that Webb could start exploring aren’t that far away, either. There are a couple of Earth-sized planets in a system that revolves around a star called TRAPPIST-1, 40 light-years away. Olivia Lim, an exoplanet researcher at the University of Montreal, took some time to use Webb to study TRAPPIST-1 and its planets in the near future – some of which are in the star’s Goldilocks zone and some of our best opportunities find signs of life

“The Trappist 1 system is unique,” Lim told AFP. “Almost all conditions there are favorable for the search for life outside our solar system.”

NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

submit proposals

Lim isn’t the only one sending suggestions. Astronomers and scientists around the world are urging to spend a little time at the space observatory while they can.

Over its approximately 20-year lifespan, the JWST program will have annual open calls for researchers of all walks of life to propose projects and experiments for implementation by the Webb. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which actually operates the observatory, has the final say in the selection.

Think of it like auditioning for your high school musical — but instead of being cast in some crappy production In the forest, You’ll find out as you study 13-billion-year-old galaxies, witness the birth of the universe, and hunt down aliens.

Webb operators have accepted 266 proposals for the first year of scientific observations, known as Cycle 1. One of the coolest aspects of this is that all accepted projects are online and easily accessible for your viewing pleasure. That is, if you Yes, really If you want to know what Webb is up to over the next year, you can click around the STScI website and see for yourself.

In addition to what we’ve already covered in this article, Webb will scrutinize a number of supermassive black holes, test dark matter, and study quasars.

avoid disaster

As the Webb orbits about a million miles from Earth, it won’t be alone. It has an army of engineers, scientists and researchers on Earth making sure things run as smoothly as they should. It’s not an easy task either, considering the worst-case scenario we can’t exactly send a repair tech there.

But if everything goes according to plan, hopefully we won’t have to worry about that at all. As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” To that end, NASA built Webb to be incredibly tough and able to withstand the harsh, unforgiving elements of space. This includes tools like the sunshade, which reflects large amounts of sunlight away from sensitive electronics.

In other words, Webb doesn’t break because that’s what it was built for Not interruption. That ethos was tested in May when a micrometeoroid hit the telescope. While there was minor damage, Webb’s design allowed it to withstand it and continue to function.

While it may bring some comfort to some of us on Earth, rest easy knowing that Webb will continue to produce stunning images and even more amazing discoveries for the next twenty years. And even when finished, it will have laid the groundwork for an untold amount of amazing science to be discovered for centuries to come.

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