JWST Image releases: What’s next?

The James Webb Space Telescope – JWST – is now fully operational and has released its first science images this week that grabbed the world’s attention.

With the JWST now “Open for business”, the world’s best astronomers are lining up to use this powerful new instrument.  To use the JWST you must go through a formal application process. Observing time on the JWST is precious and highly sought after.

Over 1,200 serious proposals were made by scientists applying for initial observing time on the JWST.

For its first year of operation, 266 projects from forty-one countries were selected, with about third lead by women. Some are concentrating on specific areas of research. Others are attempting to answer the “Big Questions”. There’s also “treasury programs” – deep surveys of the furthest reaches the Universe that will be freely available for scientists across the globe to study and likely produce discoveries for decades to come.

Here’s the outline of several of these projects. Full information on the approved JWST Cycle 1 science projects can be found here.

COSMOS-Webb: The Webb Cosmic Origins Survey

The first science image released from JWST was one of region called SMACS 0723, or  Webb’s First Deep Field as it’s come to be called.  This remarkable picture peered back towards earlier an earlier period of the Universe and will inspire and fascinate for years to come. It was however, of only a tiny area of the sky and the result of some 12.5 hours of observation by JWST.

The largest amount of observing time on the JWST for Cycle 1  – 208.6 hours – will be given to COSMOS-Webb, a deep field galaxy survey that will look deeper into a larger area of the sky than the just over 12 hours from the Webb First Deep Field.  It will cover an area of approx.  0.6 degrees of sky, or several times the size of the Full Moon. It builds on a survey already started by The Hubble Space Telescope of the same region.

This program is expected to observe over a million galaxies in this still small patch of the sky. By looking back in time, astronomers hope to learn more about the Reionization Era. While we might picture The Big Bag as this massive explosion that kicked off the bright Universe we see today, in fact the early Universe was dark. Some 400 million to 1 billion years later, the first stars and galaxies formed and began to flood the Universe with light – but this occurred in patches and not everywhere at once.

The jagged edges of the Hubble field’s outline are due to the separate images that make up the survey field.
Credits: Jeyhan Kartaltepe (RIT); Caitlin Casey (UT Austin); and Anton Koekemoer (STScI) 

Apart from trying to learn more about period of the early Universe, the large amount of data collected COSMOS-Webb will quickly be released to the world as one of the primary legacy resources for astronomers and likely to be studied for decades to come.

The second objective of this program is to study galaxies that appeared early in the Universe but appear to already be in an advanced stage of development and with no further star formation underway.  A few of these sorts of galaxies were found by Hubble and they present problematic challenges to our understanding of how the Universe developed. You can read more details about COSMOS-Webb here including its aims to study the evolution of dark matter.

Mapping the Surface and Atmosphere of a Lava Planet

Previous observations have discovered a class of planets orbiting other stars, or exoplanets, which are rocky like the Earth but so hot their surface is likely to be molten. They’ve picked up the name of “Lava Planets”.

A JWST project that’s been awarded 25 hours pf observing time will study one Lava Planet, K2-141b.  Can its surface features be mapped? During its night, does this planet cool enough for rock clouds to form?

Hot Take on a Cool World: Does Trappist-1c Have an Atmosphere?

About a quarter of JWST’s first year will be spent studying exoplanets and some 8.2% of that staring at the Trappist-1 system. This project is highly anticipated among planetary scientists.

Trappist-1 is fairly close to Earth at some 40 light years away, with 7 rocky, almost Earth-like planets orbiting around it. Hubble showed some of the planets have a hydrogen atmosphere, but has been unable to work out the type or even surface conditions.

NASA Illustration of what Trappist-1 might be like

Studying the Trappist-1 system will help us learn about rocky worlds, their atmosphere and even how conditions suitable for like might evolve. If you’d like to find out more, check out this article from The Planetary Society.

Pluto’s Climate System with JWST

The JWST team surprised us by sneaking in an unexpected image of Jupiter, including the gas giant’s elusive rings, but some 6% of the initial science programs are dedicated to Solar System research.

JWST image of Jupiter via NASA

Everyone was amazed at what we saw during 2015 flyby of Pluto by NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft. What was expected to be a boring, generic hunk of rock hanging out on the beginning of edge of the Solar System, turned out to be a complex world complete with an atmosphere.  It left intriguing questions about the development of Pluto’s atmosphere and the conditions on the surface.  Sending  spacecraft back to Pluto or other Kuiper belt objects is going to take some time. In the meantime, we’ll need to use telescopes to observe them from our neck of the woods.

A JWST Cycle 1 project of some 23 hours will study the atmosphere of Pluto to work out how it works, what are the complex hydrocarbons contained in and how it interacts with the different regions of Pluto’s landscape.

These are only a highlight of some of the work JWST has ahead of it in the in the coming months.  If you’d like to learn more about specific programs or topics they’re studying, drop us a line


Earl White – BINTEL

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