Better Than Expected: Astronomers Celebrate the Webb Telescope’s Findings

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To hear the first results from the James Webb Telescope, 200 astronomers descended on the Space Telescope Science Institute for three days in December, reports the New York Times, with an update on what may be 2022’s biggest science story. The $10 billion telescope “is working even better than astronomers had dared to hope” — and astronomers are ecstatic:

At a reception after the first day of the meeting, John Mather of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Webb’s senior project scientist from the start, raised a glass to the 20,000 people who built the telescope, the 600 astronomers who had tested it in space and the new generation of scientists who would use it. “Some of you weren’t even born when we started planning for it,” he said. “Have at it!”

Launched on Christmas one year ago, the Webb telescope “is seven times as powerful as its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope,” the Times reports — sharing what was revealed in that auditorium in December:

One by one, astronomers marched to the podium and, speaking rapidly to obey the 12-minute limit, blitzed through a cosmos of discoveries. Galaxies that, even in their relative youth, had already spawned supermassive black holes. Atmospheric studies of some of the seven rocky exoplanets orbiting Trappist 1, a red dwarf star that might harbor habitable planets. (Data suggest that at least two of the exoplanets lack the bulky primordial hydrogen atmospheres that would choke off life as we know it, but they may have skimpy atmospheres of denser molecules like water or carbon dioxide.) “We’re in business,” declared Bjorn Benneke of the University of Montreal, as he presented data of one of the exoplanets.

Megan Reiter of Rice University took her colleagues on a “deep dive” through the Cosmic Cliffs, a cloudy hotbed of star formation in the Carina constellation, which was a favorite early piece of sky candy. She is tracing how jets from new stars, shock waves and ionizing radiation from more massive nearby stars that were born boiling hot are constantly reshaping the cosmic geography and triggering the formation of new stars. “This could be a template for what our own sun went through when it was formed,” Dr. Reiter said in an interview.

Between presentations, on the sidelines and in the hallways, senior astronomers who were on hand in 1989 when the idea of the Webb telescope was first broached congratulated one another and traded war stories about the telescope’s development. They gasped audibly as the youngsters showed off data that blew past their own achievements with the Hubble.
The telescope is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. And appropriately for New Year’s Eve, the article concludes with a look to the future:

Thus far the telescope, bristling with cameras, spectroscopes and other instruments, is exceeding expectations. (Its resolving power is twice as good as advertised.) The telescope’s flawless launch, Dr. Rigby reported, has left it with enough maneuvering fuel to keep it working for 26 years or more. “These are happy numbers….”

The closing talk fell to Dr. Mather. He limned the telescope’s history, and gave a shout-out to Barbara Mikulski, the former senator of Maryland, who supported the project in 2011 when it was in danger of being canceled. He also previewed NASA’s next big act: a 12-meter space telescope called the Habitable Worlds Observatory that would seek out planets and study them.

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