But the speed at which JWST has made discoveries stems from more than its intrinsic capabilities. Astronomers spent years preparing for the observations, developing algorithms that can quickly turn their data into usable information. Much of the data is in the open, allowing the astronomical community to search it almost as fast as it comes in. Operators have also built on the experience of the telescope’s predecessor, Hubble, and packed its observing schedule as best 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 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 looked at a galaxy or an exoplanet or a star formation. It was like a fire hose.”
Now, months later, JWST continues to send vast amounts of data to amazed astronomers on Earth, and is expected to change our understanding of the distant universe, exoplanets, planet formation, galactic structure and more. Not all have enjoyed the rush of activity, which at times reflects an emphasis on speed over the scientific process, but there is no doubt that JWST is mesmerizing audiences around the world at a tremendous pace. The floodgates have opened – and they won’t close again anytime soon.
opening of the tube
JWST orbits the Sun around a stable point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. Its huge gold-coated primary mirror, the size of a giraffe, is shielded from the sun’s glare by a tennis-court-sized sunshield, allowing for unprecedented views of the universe in infrared light.
The telescope was a long time coming. It was first conceived in the 1980s and was originally slated to hit the market around 2007 with a price tag of $1 billion. But its complexity caused significant delays and cost money, until it was dubbed “the telescope that ate astronomy.” When JWST finally launched in December 2021, its estimated cost had grown to nearly $10 billion.
Even after the start there were moments of fear. The telescope’s journey to its destination beyond the moon’s orbit took a month, and hundreds of moving parts were required to deploy its various components, including its enormous sunshield needed to keep the infrared-sensitive instruments cool.