How the James Webb Space Telescope Broke the Universe

How the James Webb Space Telescope Broke the Universe

How the James Webb Space Telescope Broke the Universe

But the speed with which JWST has made discoveries is due to more than its intrinsic capabilities. Astronomers prepared for years for the observations they would make, developing algorithms that can quickly transform their data into usable information. Much of the data is open access, allowing the astronomical community to sift through it almost as fast as it arrives. Its operators also took advantage of lessons learned from the telescope’s predecessor, the Hubble, by compressing their observing schedule as much as possible.

For some, the sheer volume of extraordinary data came as a surprise. “It was more than we expected,” says Heidi Hammel, a NASA interdisciplinary scientist for JWST and vice president of science for the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, DC. “Once we got into operational mode, it was non-stop. Every hour we were looking at a galaxy or an exoplanet or star formation. It was like a fire hose.

Now, months later, the JWST continues to send reams of data to stunned astronomers on Earth, and is expected to transform our understanding of the distant universe, exoplanets, planet formation, galactic structure and much more. Not everyone enjoyed the flurry of activity, which at times reflected an emphasis on speed over the scientific process, but there is no doubt that JWST is delighting audiences around the world at a tremendous pace. The floodgates have opened — and they won’t close anytime 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 sunscreen, allowing for unprecedented views of the universe in infrared light.

The telescope took a while to arrive. First conceived in the 1980s, it was already planned for release around 2007 at a cost of $1 billion. But its complexity caused major delays, gobbling up money until at one point it was dubbed “the telescope that ate astronomy”. When JWST finally launched in December 2021, its estimated cost had increased to nearly $10 billion.

Even after launch, there were moments of anxiety. The telescope’s journey to its destination location beyond the moon’s orbit took a month, and hundreds of moving parts were needed to deploy its various components, including its massive sun shield, needed to keep the infrared-sensitive instruments cool.

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