The James Webb Space Telescope, in operation so far for only six months, is already transforming our view of the universe around us.

  • Gregory Robinson, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Program Director, was named to the TIME100, the annual list of the 100 most influential leaders in the world.
  • JWST Project Scientist John C. Mather won this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics.
  • NATURE named JWST Astronomer Jane Rigby as the person who most shaped science in 2022, stating that: “The far-seeing observatory has served up revelations from the most distant reaches of the Universe to a moon orbiting Saturn.”
  • Quanta Magazine won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for covering the JWST.

That’s just a few of the accolades NASA’s newest space telescope has received. The revolutionary telescope is returning equally revolutionary new discoveries that match these accolades.

After a long and rocky development filled with brilliant innovation and surprises both good and bad, the project is now churning out results. Here are a few of the ways the Webb is revolutionizing science.

JWST launched on 25 December 2021 as the most expensive, most delayed and most complicated space observatory ever built. This set a new standard for design and engineering, including space origami. The mirrors used by the telescope had to fit in a very small space, relatively speaking, and then unfold once the telescope reached LeGrange Point 2, about a million miles out.

After months of cooling to near-absolute zero and precision alignment, a flood of scientific papers began in July 2022. Many of them were about James Webb Space Telescope observations of early galaxies that formed shortly after the Big Bang, yet are already astonishingly similar to today’s galaxies.

Many of the Webb images are peppered with never-before-seen galaxies in the distant Universe. “There’s hardly any empty space that doesn’t have something,” says Dr.Kartaltepe of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. We can expect the record for oldest and most distant galaxy to be broken several times. For example, astronomers measure distance by the redshift of light. Hubble at it’s best can see to redshift 11. JWST has already found objects at 14, and may have ones at 20! This means galaxies began forming at about the same time as stars. That presents a puzzle for theory. How did that happen so fast?

galaxies only 300 million years after the Big Bang
Maisie’s galaxy is more than 13.5 billion years old, named after the discovering astronomer’s daughter

In relatively near regions of the cosmos, JWST show results on star formation, thanks to high resolution and infrared vision. “Compared to what we can see with Hubble, the amount of details that you see in the Universe, it’s completely mind-blowing,” says Lamiya Mowla, an astronomer at the University of Toronto in Canada. She and her colleagues were able to spot bright ‘sparkles’ around a galaxy that they dubbed the Sparkler; the sparkles turned out to be some of the oldest star clusters ever discovered.

Another burst of JWST discoveries comes from focusing on exoplanet atmospheres, which the telescope can explore in unprecedented detail. When scientists saw the first JWST data from the exoplanet WASP-39b, signals from a range of compounds, such as water, leapt right out. “Just looking at it was like, all the answers were right in front of us,” says Mercedes López-Morales, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.

WASP-39b (artist’s impression)

JWST has also made its first planet discovery: a rocky Earth-sized planet that orbits a nearby cool star. It has also managed to visualize a Jupiter sized world (below).

direct image of an exoplanet 385 ly away
Exoplanet GJ 1214b had been a mystery (illustrated). JWST has since been used to observe this exoplanet as it passes behind its star, allowing the light reflected from its atmosphere to verify the presence of water.

Applications are now open for astronomers to pitch their ideas for observations during JWST’s second year of operations, which starts in July. The next round could result in more ambitious or creative proposals to use the telescope now that astronomers know what it is capable of.

In just its first few months of science operations, JWST has delivered stunning insights on heavenly bodies ranging from planets in the Solar System to stars elsewhere in the cosmos. These discoveries have sharpened researchers’ eagerness to take more advantage of the observatory’s capabilities. Scientists are now crafting new proposals for what the telescope should do in its second year, even as they scramble for funding and debate whether the telescope’s data should be fully open-access.

Neptune rings


David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.