July 12, 2022

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  • This week, we're devoting the entire newsletter to the importance of — and controversy surrounding — the James Webb Space Telescope.

Please send your tips, questions and JWST predictions to [email protected], or if you received this as an email, just hit reply.

1 big thing: Large telescopes have lives of their own

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope — the most powerful observatory ever launched — represents not only a scientific paradigm shift but a cultural one.

Why it matters: Large telescopes like JWST and the Hubble Space Telescope take on lives and personalities of their own, influencing how the public views its place in the universe.

  • "It's a powerful tool that will study the intimate details of how galaxies are formed and how planets build their atmospheres," astronomer Caitlin Casey, of the University of Texas at Austin, tells me. "But beyond that, it is the ultimate way that humans can come into touch with the universe that we live in."

Driving the news: NASA, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris revealed the first full-color scientific images from the JWST this week, showing off the staggering power of the new telescope.

  • The JWST "will enhance what we know about the origins of our universe, our solar system and possibly life itself," Harris said during the unveiling.

How it works: The JWST is designed to stare deeply into the universe in infrared light, cutting through dust to see exactly how stars form and what the earliest galaxies looked like.

  • "It can observe things that are effectively 100 times fainter than Hubble," Casey says. Those observations are expected to give everyone — not just scientists — a deeper understanding of our place in the cosmos.
The Carina Nebula
The Carina nebula. Photo: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Yes, but: It takes a lot of time, money and collective effort to get a large space telescope to orbit. Before launch, the JWST was billions of dollars over budget and took decades longer to develop than initially expected.

  • Some in the astronomy community have suggested that these projects eat up too much budget, time and attention.
  • Instead, those scientists suggest that NASA and others should fund smaller missions that are still productive, but perhaps less all-encompassing to keep the field moving forward more quickly.
  • But others say that would sacrifice the inspiration and scientific ambition brought about by funding and using these expensive telescopes.
  • "There's this possibility for science to kind of meander — one neat discovery after another, but no real quantum leap as it were. And that's just because there's a limitation in the technology. So with a flagship mission like Webb, you really have the technology behind you to push forward," says Danny Milisavljevic, a Purdue astronomer working with JWST.

Flashback: The Hubble helped push astronomy forward in much the same way people expect the JWST to do. It also brought the universe to the public in an accessible way — through beautiful photos.

  • "It made the universe more friendly and intimate and exciting for everyday people," Ray Villard, the news chief for the Hubble Space Telescope, tells me.
  • It also showed the public that the universe is a dynamic, evolving place, he adds.

The big picture: The JWST's ability to push the field forward has been directly informed by Hubble's science.

  • While Hubble is limited in its ability to see the earliest generation of galaxies, the JWST is expected to fill in that gap in the early universe, revealing what Hubble can't.
  • But even that wouldn't be possible without Hubble, which through its deep field revealed the extreme diversity of galaxies hidden in a seemingly empty patch of sky.

The bottom line: Through JWST "we are going to be seeing the faintest specks of light that have ever been recorded in human history," Casey says. "They carry a lot of meaning. They tell us how big our cosmos is — and relatively speaking — how insignificant we are in the cosmos."

2. JWST's first photos revealed

Photos: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

The first batch of James Webb Space Telescope photos released by NASA usher in a new era of discovery as the powerful new tool comes fully online.

What's happening: The photos, released Monday and Tuesday, show off star formation within the Carina Nebula, a giant planet's atmosphere, a cluster of galaxies, one of the deepest photos of the universe ever taken, and a planetary nebula 2,000 light-years from Earth.

  • "We're making discoveries and we really haven't even started trying yet," NASA's Eric Smith, JWST program scientist, said during a press conference today of the new images.
  • The deep field photo — revealed on Monday by President Biden — contains galaxies as they looked more than 13 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang.
A spectrum showing the molecules in the atmosphere of a giant alien planet.
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI
  • The JWST's image of the giant, extremely hot exoplanet WASP-96 b revealed water vapor in its atmosphere.
  • And the telescope's photo of the planetary nebula — called the Southern Ring Nebula — shows off the dying star at its center as never before.

The bottom line: These photos are just the beginning for JWST, which scientists expect will reframe how they understand the history of the universe.

Go deeper: Read more about the new photos

3. What's in a telescope's name?

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The hype around the JWST's first images has come with renewed pressure from astronomers for NASA to rename the telescope.

The big picture: James Webb — a former NASA administrator — has been accused of involvement with the ousting of LGBTQ+ federal employees during the "lavender scare" of the 1950s and 1960s.

  • LGBTQ+ astronomers have reported feeling alienated by NASA's response to their concerns.
  • "Things don't feel good to me," astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz told me ahead of the JWST photo reveal. "I really wish that I could access some sense of excitement, but I really just haven't been able to."

Catch up quick: In March 2021, four astronomers — Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Walkowicz, and Brian Nord — penned an opinion piece in Scientific American advocating that NASA rename the telescope.

  • After an investigation, NASA announced that it hasn't found evidence that compels the agency to change the telescope's name. Webb died in 1992.
  • However, documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by Nature show that people at the agency knew of an appeals ruling made in 1969 that suggests "it had been customary at NASA to fire people over suspicions about their sexual orientation."
  • A new documentary also highlights evidence of Webb's involvement in the lavender scare and the experiences of LGBTQ+ space scientists in the field today.

What they're saying: "No matter the facts behind what may or may not have happened, it is a fact that it makes a significant subset of our community uncomfortable referring to the name James Webb," Caitlin Casey told me.

  • "I think many of us kind of wish it had been renamed and are actively trying to find ways to make the community comfortable talking about the telescope as this phenomenal tool and taking focus off of the person that it's named after," she said. This includes referring to the telescope as JWST instead of "Webb."
  • "I think the name has to be changed," Walkowicz said. "I don't really see what another acceptable solution would be."

What's next: NASA is expected to release an update from a space agency historian and a contract historian detailing the findings of their investigation into Webb.

  • The space agency hasn't yet announced when that update will be shared.

4. Out of this world reading list

Perseverance on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance rover scouts for Mars Sample Return mission landing sites (Brett Tingley, Space.com)

Japan wants to bring artificial gravity to the Moon (Kevin Hurler, Gizmodo)

Huge underground search for mysterious dark matter begins (Seth Borenstein, AP)

China to target near-Earth object 2020 PN1 for asteroid deflection mission (Andrew Jones, SpaceNews)

5. Weekly dose of awe: Hubble's Carina nebula

Photo: NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of California, Berkeley), and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

The Hubble walked so that JWST could run.

  • This photo — taken in 2007 — shows Hubble's view of the Carina nebula, which also served as a target for one of JWST's first images.
  • "The fireworks in the Carina region started 3 million years ago when the nebula's first generation of newborn stars condensed and ignited in the middle of a huge cloud of cold molecular hydrogen. Radiation from these stars carved out an expanding bubble of hot gas," an image description reads.
  • Today, the Hubble and JWST are set to work in tandem to observe the universe, beaming back new photos and data to waiting astronomers on Earth and giving everyone a more holistic view of the cosmos.

Big thanks to Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath and Sheryl Miller for editing this week's edition and to the visuals team for all of their help. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe. 🔭