When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reachesits orbit about a million miles (1.5 kilometers) fromEarth and begins studying the distant reaches of theuniverse, the event will mark an unprecedented triumphon several technological fronts.Aside from its 21.3-foot (6.5-meter) primary mirror —the largest and lightest ever flown — JWST will fly adeployable multi-layer sunshade. This tennis court -sized structure will block sunlight and prevent the coldsection of the observatory from exceeding -375° F(-233.3°C) — the temperature needed to detect faintinfrared light from distant astronomical objects andreveal more about the formation of planetarysystems.The microshutters used on the observatory’s NearInfrared Spectrograph also represent another technologicalbreakthrough. They, too, achieved a technologyreadiness level rating of six following an importantdemonstration test earlier this year. Originally conceivedwith Goddard R&D funding, the microshutter arrayconsists of 62,415 tiny shutters arranged in a waffle-like silicon grid. Through the application of a magneticforce, these shutters — each about the width of ahuman hair — open or close to allow or preventstarlight from entering the spectrograph. This way,astronomers can gather light from only those objectsthey want to study.JWST also is flying a super-cold mechanical cyrocoolerto keep instruments cool and state-of- the- art infrareddetectors.Photo Credit:  Chris GunnSpring 2007

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reachesits orbit about a million miles (1.5 kilometers) fromEarth and begins studying the distant reaches of theuniverse, the event will mark an unprecedented triumphon several technological fronts.Aside from its 21.3-foot (6.5-meter) primary mirror —the largest and lightest ever flown — JWST will fly adeployable multi-layer sunshade. This tennis court -sized structure will block sunlight and prevent the coldsection of the observatory from exceeding -375° F(-233.3°C) — the temperature needed to detect faintinfrared light from distant astronomical objects andreveal more about the formation of planetarysystems.The microshutters used on the observatory’s NearInfrared Spectrograph also represent another technologicalbreakthrough. They, too, achieved a technologyreadiness level rating of six following an importantdemonstration test earlier this year. Originally conceivedwith Goddard R&D funding, the microshutter arrayconsists of 62,415 tiny shutters arranged in a waffle-like silicon grid. Through the application of a magneticforce, these shutters — each about the width of ahuman hair — open or close to allow or preventstarlight from entering the spectrograph. This way,astronomers can gather light from only those objectsthey want to study.JWST also is flying a super-cold mechanical cyrocoolerto keep instruments cool and state-of- the- art infrareddetectors.Photo Credit: Chris GunnSpring 2007

Photo by: NASA Goddard

NASA Goddard

What We’ve Already Learned From James Webb? (Hint: it’s a lot)

That was worth the wait. Just a quick handful of months since its historic launch on Christmas Day, the James Webb Space Telescope has flown to its observing position, unfolded its delicate instruments and ultra-sized mirror, and run through a suite of checks and alignments and calibrations. The team at NASA behind the telescopes released their first batch of images from the science runs, and besides being gorgeous, they're powerful.

August 11, 2022

Here are three takeaways from the first batch of data:

1) We’re looking back in time.

The first mega-deep-sky image courtesy of James Webb is of the galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723. Despite its somewhat ungainly name the cluster, which sits over 5 billion light-years away from us, the collection of galaxies offers us a powerful glimpse into the early universe.

The galaxy cluster itself is rich, home it about a thousand galaxies clumped into a ball just a couple hundred million light-years across (which might as well be downtown Manhattan in cosmological terms). But interspersed with those galaxies are twisting, arcing bands of light. Those bands of light are even more distant galaxies, their light distorted as it passed through the strong gravitational field of the immense cluster.

Some of those galaxies are over 13 billion years old, the oldest we have ever observed. We don’t have a complete understanding of how galaxies formed in the early universe, and James Webb will be our first window into that important epoch.

Photo by: Space Telescope Science Institute Office of Public Outreach

Space Telescope Science Institute Office of Public Outreach

2) We’re understanding the atmospheres of alien planets.

The image associated with the analysis of the exoplanet WASP 96b may not be all that eye-catching – it’s just a bunch of dots on a chart – but that doesn’t mean it’s ugly.

One of the tasks of James Webb is to study alien exoplanets, and especially figure out what their atmospheres are made of. The telescope can do that through a trick: when the exoplanet passes across the face of its parent star, the light from that star goes through the planet’s atmosphere before continuing through the interstellar depths to earth.

The elements in the atmosphere change the nature of the light, and we can detect those changes with James Webb. WASP 96b is a giant gassy planet orbiting close to its parent star, and astronomers are using that exoplanet as a test bed before moving on to more challenging targets…like Earth-like planets orbiting sun-like stars.

Photo by: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScl

NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScl

3) We’re seeing the births and deaths of stars

The images produced by the James Webb of the Carina Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula are truly jaw-dropping, both in their enormous scale and in their detailed resolution. The James Webb is an infrared telescope, and infrared light easily pierces the dense clouds of gas and dust that surround these kinds of systems. That means that James Webb can pierce right to the heart of them and see how they work.

The Carina Nebula is a nursery; a birthplace for new stars where a nebula is collapsing into dense little pockets. At the other end of the spectrum, the Southern Ring Nebula is produced by a sun-like star shortly after its demise. By studying all these life stages, James Webb will help us piece together the grand stories of the stars themselves.

Dive Deeper into the James Webb Space Telescope

NASA’s $10 Billion Space Telescope Hit by Micrometeoroid

NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was recently hit by a micrometeoroid. One of the 18 golden mirror segments on the telescope was hit, causing some minor damage.

The First Full-Color Image From the James Webb Telescope is Here

The $10 billion space telescope's first images of deep space are finally here. Watch this historic event unfold.

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

Next Up

Why Astronomers Care About Super-Old Galaxies?

A long time ago, our universe was dark.It was just 380,000 years after the big bang. Up until that age, our entire observable cosmos was less than a millionth of its present size. All the material in the universe was compressed into that tiny volume, forcing it to heat up and become a plasma. But as the universe expanded and cooled, eventually the plasma changed into a neutral gas as the first atoms formed.

How Astronomers Use a Trick of Gravity to See the Most Distant Objects in the Universe

Let’s say you’re an astronomer (work with me here) and you want to take a picture of something incredibly, deeply far away. You know, the typical business of astronomy.

How Exoplanets Became the Next Big Thing in Astronomy

To date, we know of over 5,000 planets outside the solar system. And astronomers suspect that there may be *checks notes* around a trillion more in our galaxy alone. The search for exoplanets is one of the hottest topics in astronomy, with expensive telescopes and giant collaborations all searching for the holy grail of the 21st century: an Earth 2.0, a habitable world like our own.

A Guide to this August’s Best Astronomy Attractions

Learn more about the exciting things happening in the night sky this month! From the rings of Saturn to the most popular meteor shower of the year, August 2022 has us stargazing all month.

Got You! Astronomers Find an Especially Sneaky Black Hole

Black holes are tricky creatures. Since ancient times the practice of astronomy has been to point our eyes and instruments at all the glowing things in the skies above us. But black holes are defined by the fact that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational clutches. So how you do see something that is completely, totally black?

This Year, James Webb will Take a Close Look at a Lava World

The James Webb Space Telescope is gearing up to be an exoplanet extraordinaire. Among many other missions and targets, astronomers plan to use the observatory, now in its final stages of preparations to study…well, a world where it might rain lava.

It’s Not You, It’s Me: How a Planet Left Our Solar System

Sometimes you just know. Something clicks, you have a realization that this relationship isn’t right, and it’s simply time to go. It can happen to anyone, at any time, even to planets, and even billions of years ago.

What Happens When Stars Kiss (Hint: They Explode)

You know that feeling--They close their eyes, purse their lips, and lean in. So you go for it. You feel the spark, the magic, and the fire of that first kiss. It’s one of the best things in the Universe.Except, of course, if you’re a star.

The Perseid Meteor Shower Reaches its Peak

Stargazers rejoice! The annual Perseid meteor shower is upon us. Here's what you need to know...(updated August 11, 2022)

There’s a Hole in Our Galaxy

Folks, we just found a 500-lightyear-wide hole in our galaxy. Fess up: which one of you did it?

Related To: