Webb-ster's space dictionary: a recap of JWST's findings

Galileo Galilei placed his polished glass lenses into their frames, careful not to cause a single scratch. He took a breath in anticipation and looked into one end, the other angled towards the sky. He readied his notebooks for his discoveries and gazed towards Jupiter.

Little did he know, that was the day humanity first took steps towards the stars. The questions his little invention brought about and the images seen through that telescope, were the beginnings of an ongoing journey whose most recent chapter is the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), more powerful than anything ever used before. It’s the pinnacle of telescopic power, and it floats in Earth’s orbit, looking into the sky for answers to questions we never knew we'd be able to answer.

The telescope was launched in December 2021 and was evaluated to operate for five to 10 years. That range of years is pretty fluid considering the Hubble Telescope, originally rated for 15 years, has continued operations to this day, 33 years since its launch. JWST was the product of almost 30 years of work by a team of scientists, with numerous delays and $10 billion allocated towards the program. After its launch, and a few months of work while in orbit, JWST returned the first images, and scientists were ecstatic. JWST captured the birth of stars and the formation of celestial titans in the gas and dust of the Pillars of Creation. It’s a process that has been described in millions of middle school science textbooks, but having the images, having the concrete data to point to, is amazing.

The telescope also captured amazing images of the Phantom Galaxy, a low-brightness galaxy that lies almost face-on to Earth. The images found are beautiful, clearly highlighting the spiral structure of the galaxy, with star clusters, clouds of gas, dust, and supernovae easily visible for anyone and everyone to see.

But perhaps the crown jewel of them all was JWST’s first glimpses of the oldest galaxies in the universe. The creation of the universe has been a mystery for so long, the moments after the Big Bang only theorized upon by quantum physicists, and the eons after still just out of reach of our observations. But with James Webb, those first galaxies were spotted, formed only 350 million years after the Big Bang. If the universe was 19, those galaxies would have formed when it was only five months old.

There are more stars to discover and more phenomena to observe, and pages upon pages of images and data. There are mysteries yet to be discovered, from the strange ripples surrounding the Wolf-Rayet star, to the weird and wonderful shapes of the Southern Ring Nebula. Images of galaxies colliding and of planets millions of miles away are the new frontier for astronomy, and JWST has just finished its first year up there. We don’t know what more might come, what more discoveries could be waiting for us.

There’s a saying, one I heard at a convention years ago. Knowledge is like an island, whose shoreline is the questions that remain to be asked. And every time your island grows a little bit, the water recedes, and the shoreline gets longer. New questions, new discoveries to be made. Each one just leads you to another shoreline, another question. The more you grow your island, the more there is left for you to discover.

James Webb is on humanity’s shoreline, and NASA has invited us all to take a deeper look. JWST data is publicly accessible — I’d encourage you to go to the coast and explore for yourself.