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Starts With A Bang

5 ways the James Webb Space Telescope could change science forever

On July 12, 2022, JWST will release its first science images. Here are 5 ways the telescope’s findings could change science forever.
jwst change science
This image, of a dusty region of the Large Magellanic Cloud, was taken with JWST's MIRI instrument at a wavelength of 7.7 microns. By measuring the Universe at unprecedented wavelengths, depths, sensitivities and resolutions, JWST can reveal details that have never been revealed before. From dust to stars to black holes and even to potential biosignatures, its capabilities could show us a Universe we never even expected to find.
Key Takeaways
  • The James Webb Space Telescope, ahead of schedule and performing better than its design specifications dictated, is on the cusp of beginning its science operations.
  • While many new discoveries about the Universe are anticipated, from planets to stars to galaxies to dust to black holes and more, there are some amazing possibilities for what we don’t expect, but might still find.
  • Thanks to its unique, unprecedented capabilities, JWST might answer five currently open questions about the Universe in very surprising ways. Here are some clues about what we should keep our minds open to.

Building superior scientific tools empowers us to investigate the Universe as never before.

launch James Webb
Glittering in the sunlight as it recedes from the view of the final stage of the Ariane 5 rocket that launched it, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope heads toward its final destination with perhaps the maximum amount of fuel we could have hoped for. Instead of a planned 5.5-10 years of science operations, we’re anticipating a 20+ year lifetime for JWST.
(Credit: NASA TV/YouTube)

Now fully deployed and commissioned, JWST will soon begin science operations.

This three-panel animation shows the difference between 18 unaligned individual images, those same images after each segment had been better configured, and then the final image where the individual images from all 18 of the JWST’s mirrors had been stacked and co-added together. The pattern made by that star, a “snowflake” unique to JWST, can only slightly be improved upon with better calibration.
Credits: NASA/STScI, compiled by E. Siegel

Although many cosmic questions will certainly be answered, the greatest revolutions arise unexpectedly.

This is a simulated JWST/NIRCam mosaic that was generated using JAGUAR and the NIRCam image simulator Guitarra, at the expected depth of the JADES Deep program. In the beginning of 2022, scientists noted that in its first year of science operations, JWST may break many records that Hubble set over the course of its 32 year (and counting) lifetime, including records for most distant galaxy and most distant star. The former has just fallen.
(Credit: C. Williams et al., ApJ, 2018)

Here are five questions that JWST could conceivably answer, changing our cosmic conceptions forever.

Although Spitzer (launched 2003) was earlier than WISE (launched 2009), it had a larger mirror and a narrower field-of-view. Even the very first JWST image at comparable wavelengths, shown alongside them, can resolve the same features in the same region to an unprecedented precision. This is a preview of the science we’ll get.
(Credit: NASA and WISE/SSC/IRAC/STScI, compiled by Andras Gaspar)

1.) Do biosignatures exist on nearby super-Earths?

If other inhabited planets exist in our galaxy, near-future technology that will be at our disposal within this century, or perhaps even by 2040, may be able to first uncover it. Equipped with both a coronagraph and a larger primary mirror, the next NASA flagship mission after the Nancy Roman Telescope, tentatively code-named LUVex, might be exactly the observatory to first find an inhabited planet.
(Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

If unexpected signs of life exist in the atmospheres of super-Earth worlds, JWST could reveal them.

When an exoplanet passes in front of its parent star, a portion of that starlight will filter through the exoplanet’s atmosphere, allowing us to break up that light into its constituent wavelengths and to characterize the atomic and molecular composition of the atmosphere. If the planet is inhabited, we may reveal unique biosignatures, but if the planet has a thick, gas-rich envelope of volatiles around it, the prospects for habitability will be very low. Nearly all so-called “super-Earth” worlds that have had their transit spectrum measured have revealed these characteristic volatile envelopes, suggesting that they’re mini-Neptunes instead of super-Earths. K2-18b is no different.
Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech

They would be our first-ever hints of life outside the Solar System.

When starlight passes through a transiting exoplanet’s atmosphere, signatures are imprinted. Depending on the wavelength and intensity of both emission and absorption features, the presence or absence of various atomic and molecular species within an exoplanet’s atmosphere can be revealed through the technique of transit spectroscopy. JWST cannot get spectra for Earth-sized planets around Sun-like stars, but Habitable Worlds Observatory finally will.
Credit: ESA/David Sing/PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) mission

2.) Are there pristine stars in ultra-distant galaxies?

An artist’s conception of what a region within the Universe might look like as it forms stars for the first time. As they shine and merge, radiation will be emitted, both electromagnetic and gravitational. But the conversion of matter into energy does something else: it causes an increase in radiation pressure, which fights against gravitation. Surrounding the star-forming region is darkness, as neutral atoms effectively absorb that emitted starlight, while the emitted ultraviolet starlight works to ionize that matter from the inside out.
Credit: Pablo Carlos Budassi/Wikimedia Commons

By understanding and measuring second-generation stars, JWST could find additional, first-generation starlight alongside them.

An illustration of CR7, the first galaxy detected that was thought to house Population III stars: the first stars ever formed in the Universe. It was later determined that these stars aren’t pristine, after all, but part of a population of metal-poor stars. The very first stars of all must have been heavier, more massive, and shorter-lived than the stars we see today, and by measuring and understanding the light from the metal-poor stars, we could disentangle any additional light to search for evidence of a truly pristine stellar population.
(Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

3.) Are black holes energetically active in dusty, early galaxies?

This artist’s impression of the dusty core of the galaxy-quasar hybrid object, GNz7q, shows a supermassive, growing black hole at the center of a dust-rich galaxy that’s forming new stars at a clip of some ~1600 solar masses worth of stars per year: a rate that’s about 3000 times that of the Milky Way. If the early JWST galaxies are “polluted” by an active galactic nucleus, that could be biasing our inferred masses for these galaxies.
Credit: ESA/Hubble, N. Bartmann

By exquisitely measuring the energy re-radiated by dust, JWST could reveal shrouded supermassive black hole activity.

In this comparison view, the Hubble data is shown in violet, while ALMA data, revealing dust and cold gas (which themselves indicate star-formation potential), is overlaid in orange. With its views out beyond the limits of infrared astronomy but sensitive to spectroscopic features, ALMA can detect some of the most distant ionized/excited elements in cosmic history.
(Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); NASA/ESA Hubble)

4.) Was the Universe born with black holes?

quasar-galaxy hybrid
This tiny sliver of the GOODS-N deep field, imaged with many observatories including Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, XMM-Newton, Herschel, the VLT, and more, contains a seemingly unremarkable red dot. That object, a quasar-galaxy hybrid from just 730 million years after the Big Bang, showcases how bright and powerful quasars can be. However, despite their early presence and remarkable luminosities, they cannot account for all or even most of the reionizing photons needed to render the Universe transparent to optical light.
Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth (UCSC), P. Oesch (UCSC, Yale), R. Bouwens (LEI), I. Labbe (LEI), Cosmic Dawn Center/Niels Bohr Institute/University of Copenhagen, Denmark

By investigating the earliest galaxies, JWST will reveal their formation history.

If you begin with an initial, seed black hole when the Universe was only 100 million years old, there’s a limit to the rate at which it can grow: the Eddington limit. If seeds of several tens-of-thousands of solar masses arise early on and these SMBH seeds grow rapidly thereafter, there may be no conflict with what’s observed, after all.
Credit: F. Wang, image taken at AAS237

If black holes preceded the first stars, JWST could discover the critical evidence.

Primordial Black Holes
If the Universe was born with primordial black holes, a completely non-standard scenario, and if those black holes served as the seeds of the supermassive black holes that permeate our Universe, there will be signatures that future observatories, like the James Webb Space Telescope, will be sensitive to.
Credit: European Space Agency

5.) How are dark matter-free galaxies made?

Many nearby galaxies, including all the galaxies of the local group (mostly clustered at the extreme left), display a relationship between their mass and velocity dispersion that indicates the presence of dark matter. NGC 1052-DF2 is the first known galaxy that appears to be made of normal matter alone, and was later joined by DF4 in 2019. Galaxies like Segue 1 and Segue 3, however, are particularly dark matter-rich; there are a wide diversity of properties, and the dark matter-free galaxies are only poorly understood.
Credit: S. Danieli et al., ApJL, 2019

Both leading formation mechanisms require galactic interactions to separate dark matter from normal matter.

The galaxy NGC 1052-DF4, one of the two satellite galaxies of NGC 1052 determined to be devoid of dark matter internally, shows some evidence of being tidally disrupted; an effect more easily seen in the panel at right, once the surrounding light sources are accurately modeled and removed. Galaxies such as this are unlikely to live long in rich environments without dark matter to hold them together, but their formation mechanisms are still debated, and may arise from more than one mechanism.
Credit: M. Montes et al., ApJ, 2020

If there’s more to the story, JWST will teach it to us.

galaxies without dark matter
In early 2022, for the first time, a cosmological simulation has produced dark matter-deficient galaxies that match our observed galaxies that lack dark matter across a wide variety of properties. In the future, better observations and larger data sets will be able to test these predictions robustly, and determine the effectiveness of the simulation.
(Credit: J. Moreno et al., Nature Astronomy, 2022)

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