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The ultimate guide to the James Webb Space Telescope

Published Nov 11th, 2022 7:14PM EST
James Webb telescope
Image: Vadimsadovski / Adobe

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the largest telescope in space. As an infrared space observatory, the telescope was designed to peer deep into the early universe. Since the telescope’s launch in 2021, it has carried on a very storied legacy.

Setting up

The James Webb Space Telescope launched from the European Space Agency’s Kourou launch site in French Guiana on December 25, 2021. In early January, NASA Shared one of the last videos of Webb that we’ll ever see. After almost a month of travel, the powerful James Webb reached its final destination, more than a million miles away from Earth.

From late January to July, NASA continued to provide updates on James Webb’s progress. On March 16, NASA shared Webb’s first in-focus image, following up with news on April 28 that Webb was fully aligned and ready to get to work. In May, we finally got a look at another image captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, detailing the quality of Webb’s images.

It was around this time that NASA officials fully realized that we were working with a telescope that was going to change our understanding of the universe completely, with NASA and the ESA releasing news of some of the possible studies that Webb would undergo, including observations of two Super-Earths found within our galaxy.

Webb takes a hit

James Webb damage to mirror from micrometeoroid hit
Images comparing measurements from James Webb mirrors. Right shows mirror alignment after the micrometeroid hit. Image source: NASA / ESA / CSA

In June, NASA revealed when we’d see the first full in-color images from James Webb. Shortly after announcing that those images would release in July, though, dire news was shared – a micrometeoroid had hit Webb. NASA wasn’t sure what this meant for the James Webb Space Telescope then, but we later learned that Webb suffered an uncorrectable change to one of its mirrors.

Thankfully, that hit hasn’t affected the James Webb Space Telescope in completing its duties, and in July, NASA shared more details about Webb’s first targets.

James Webb’s first images

With NASA set to reveal Webb’s first images on July 12, the space agency revealed the targets of those first, crucial observations on July 10. Those targets would include the Carina Nebula, WASP-96b, the Southern Ring Nebula, Stephan’s Quintet, and a section of space known as SMACS 0723.

James Webb image of Carina Nebula
An image of the Carina Nebula captured by the James Webb in its very first scientific observations. Image source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

When the first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope were released, though, they were far greater than anyone had expected. From there, Webb’s observations only continued to trickle out, with Webb detecting water on an exoplanet. This development proved that the telescope was more powerful than anything scientists had ever worked with.

Observing Jupiter and a supernova

But the discoveries and observations made by the James Webb Space Telescope don’t stop with those first images of the early universe. Since those first images were released in July, NASA and the ESA have revealed other images. And members of the astronomy community have even revealed their own images, composited from the data that Webb has captured.

In mid-July, Webb images of Jupiter began to circulate, showcasing some of the first bits of data that the James Webb Space Telescope had captured. Around this same time, the space telescope also captured observations of its first supernova, offering a brief glimpse at part of the universe the telescope wasn’t even designed to look for.

August observations

Cartwheel galaxy captured by Webb image
Webb’s capture of the Cartwheel Galaxy. Image source: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

From there, Webb’s observations and images have only continued to wow the minds of the space community for the past few months. August brought a dazzling photo of the Cartwheel Galaxy and Webb’s discovery of the most distant galaxy known to man. The James Webb space telescope also captured an image of two galaxies smashing together, a common but often unobserved galactic event.

But, capturing the full scale of what the James Webb Space Telescope is capable of and showcasing it for all to see has been difficult, even with the beautiful images it has delivered. That’s why the ESA set up a video back in mid-August, detailing Webb’s insane reach into the universe.

One thing that has made the James Webb Space Telescope so endearing to astronomers is how openly available it is to them. All of the data that Webb has captured has been shared with the community, allowing astronomers of all types and renown to siphon through the terabytes of observations Webb has had.

In August, the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Study looked at Webb’s data, creating the largest Webb image at the time. That was shortly followed up by Webb’s image of the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy, 56 million light-years away from our planet.

great barred spiral galaxy
The Great Barred Spiral Galaxy as captured by the James Webb space telescope Image source: u/SpaceGuy44 / STScI

More photos of Jupiter captured by the James Webb Space Telescope surfaced in August, showing dazzling auroras along the planet’s surface. Around that same time, scientists completed a spectrum on an exoplanet and detected carbon dioxide for the first time outside our solar system.

But August’s observations didn’t stop there. Near the end of the month, NASA shared a beautiful image of an Einstein Ring located 12 billion light-years from Earth, showcasing the clarity with which the James Webb Space Telescope can capture distant phenomena, even when they’re harder to see.

 The space telescope ended August off with an image of the Phantom Galaxy, a beautiful spiral-armed galaxy 32 million light-years from Earth. While the images are beautiful, James Webb’s data has continued to baffle scientists, seemingly turning our understanding of how the earliest galaxies formed on its head entirely.

Orion, the Tarantula Nebula, and a wind binary

And September was just as busy for the new space telescope, with astronomers pulling images of a wind binary from Webb’s data early on, and the first direct image of an exoplanet we’ve ever taken. A photo of the Tarantula Nebula was also shared at the start of the month, with the James Webb Space Telescope capturing photos of a bizarre alien planet not long after.

James Webb capture of the Tarantula Nebula
James Webb gave astronomers a beautiful view of the Tarantula Nebula Image source: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

Webb has also given us the most detailed view of the Orion Nebula we’ve ever seen. When compared to Hubble captures of the same region, we can truly see just how far the technology inside of the James Webb Space Telescope has advanced beyond NASA and the ESA’s original space telescope.

James Webb has also provided more insight on Mars, confirming data that other spacecraft have already observed. It isn’t groundbreaking or revolutionary data, but it is information scientists at NASA could use to learn more about the Red Planet.

September also brought some bad news for the James Webb Space Telescope, though, when a study suggested that scientists could be misreading the information that Webb had captured. The study argued that our current models and beliefs of how the universe work could cause us to misinterpret the data that Webb provides. Whether that’s something we can fix anytime soon remains to be seen.

James Webb Orion Nebula
The heart of the Orion Nebula as captured by James Webb. Image source: NASA, ESA, CSA, Data reduction and analysis : PDRs4All ERS Team; graphical processing S. Fuenmayor & O. Berné

September also brought news of a friction issue with the James Webb Space Telescope’s mid-infrared instrument (MIRI), which NASA has yet to provide any kind of update on. Even with MIRI out of work at the moment, though, Webb still managed to capture the clearest image of Neptune we’ve captured in decades, as well as an image of a spiral galaxy’s skeleton.

The James Webb space telescope sees fingerprints and pillars

Cosmic fingerprintImage source: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, JPL-Caltech

Back in October, James Webb turned its attention to a duo of stars known as Wolf-Rayet 140 (WR140). This rare kind of star and its companion garnered quite a bit of attention after Webb captured what appeared to be a fingerprint in space, the result of clouds of dust sent forth from the duo as they passed close to each other.

October also brought us a more in-depth image of the Pillars of Creation, when James Webb captured an iconic infrared image of the beloved star factory. The Pillars of Creation have long been a point of observation for astronomers, but Webb’s image only heightened the beauty of the iconic stellar item even more.

Later in the month, NASA released another image of the Pillars of Creation, this time revealing a haunting look at the way the iconic stellar entity looks in mid-infrared light. The image is quite the contrast from the usual, brighter colors we’re used to seeing, and it provided some insight into the pillars that we hadn’t considered before.

Pillars of Creation imageImage source: SCIENCE: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Hubble Heritage Project (STScI, AURA) IMAGE PROCESSING: Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

But Webb didn’t stop there. October also brought insight into a beautiful rainbow knot of galaxies as Webb peered over 11 billion years into the past. Further, scientists are keen to use Webb to search for even more answers to questions about the early universe, something astronomers have hoped to dig into more for decades.

Now, as we head into November, a glitch in Webb’s systems has been resolved, allowing the space telescope to prepare for important observations of Saturn, which astronomers hope will provide more details about the planet.

The James Webb Space Telescope is located more than a million miles from Earth and cost $10 billion to develop. It isn’t designed to receive any kind of repairs or service missions like Hubble has in the past. This lack of repair or upkeep makes every observation the telescope has extremely important, as any kind of mechanical failure could shut everything down.

And you can rest assured NASA, and the ESA will take advantage of every moment available. This powerful telescope has continued to blow the minds of scientists all around the world, and it doesn’t look like it is ready to stop anytime soon.

Joshua Hawkins fell in love with writing and technology at a young age. Eventually he decided to combine the two and started writing about video games, the latest tech, and all the cool gadgets he could find. Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.