As the James Webb Space Telescope begins its month-long voyage to LaGrange Point 2, several of the planet’s leading astronomers and scientists have shared their expectations and hopes for this epoch event in human history with The Daily Galaxy.
Jackie Faherty, dailygalaxy.com editor, NASA Hubble Fellow and astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History; winner of the 2020 Vera Rubin Early Career Prize and the 2021 Robert H Goddard Award for science accomplishments.
“I think JWST is a game changer in Astronomy research. We’ve been scraping the barrel (metaphorically speaking) on infrared photons despite amazing missions like Spitzer and WISE. JWST will be the equivalent of going from getting the last drops of water out of a dataset to getting a full faucet turned on for you. There is a world of science in the infrared that we haven’t had access to yet and it holds the secrets of planets, brown dwarfs, stars, galaxies and more. JWST will be showing us many of the universe’s hidden secrets.”
Eric Gawiser, astrophysicist, Rutgers University, Analysis Coordinator of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) Dark Energy Science Collaboration (DESC):
“When it comes to JWST, despite the wonderful Christmas present of a successful launch, astrophysicists still have our fingers crossed. During Webb’s month long journey out to L2, there are several key deployment steps left to achieve in the reverse-origami process of transforming it into a working telescope. My greatest hope is simply that the telescope, and most of its instruments, end up working as planned. Once the fingers uncross, we can expect great advances from Webb, with completely unexpected discoveries likely to be the most impactful. Webb will have unprecedented abilities to image the first galaxies to form after the Big Bang and to check if some of these galaxies might have consisted, for a brief time, of a single huge star. And it will radically advance our knowledge of planets orbiting nearby stars.
“By shifting the focus from visible to infrared light, Webb will let us apply techniques refined on nearby galaxies to the very distant universe. I’m most excited about the capability of Webb’s NIRSPEC instrument to gather spectra of many distant galaxies at once, which is something that the Hubble Space Telescope cannot do. The CEERS Early Release Science program will take advantage of this to study how fast galaxies in the early universe are forming new stars, if they have already accumulated enough heavy elements to create planets, and if they emit enough high-energy radiation to cause the reionization of the universe about 500 million years after the Big Bang.”
Heidi Hammel, NASA Interdisciplinary Scientist on the James Webb Telescope Project; her focus is on Webb’s theme, Planetary Systems and the Origins of Life:
“The most exciting science from Webb will certainly include seeing the light from the very first galaxies that form in the Universe. Webb will also study the atmospheres of nearby planets, looking for interesting chemical signatures that will tell us if those planets have the potential to host life. And within our own Solar System (my science program), Webb will study the surface chemistry of cold distant objects like Pluto and dozens of other Kuiper Belt objects beyond Neptune, and so much more! We are incredibly excited for the science to begin later this summer, after we finish preparing the telescope and its equipment for observations.”
Daniel Holz, astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, in the Enrico Fermi Institute and the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics:
“I will be very disappointed if JWST only shows us things we expect to see. I very much hope, and fully expect, that we’ll see the completely unexpected!”
Dan Hooper, cosmologist, University of Chicago and Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, author of At the Edge of Time:
“JWST will give us our first glimpse of the earliest forming stars, which began and ended their short lives only a couple of hundred million years after the Big Bang. It will also give us a closer and more penetrating look into the regions that surround supermassive black holes. In short, it will be a boon for all of astronomy, from cosmology to planetary science.”
Lisa Kaltenegger, Director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell and Associate Professor in Astronomy:
“I hope that we can glimpse the first signs of life on rocky planets orbiting different stars.”
“In the midst of the eloquences and expectations directed toward JWST’s stakes on habitable worlds, my always-contrarian nature is drenched in pins-and-needles anticipation of the important calibration observations (e.g. Program GO 1556) that will characterize the platform’s on-sky systematics when exposed to exoplanetary targets.”
[Editor’s Note: the calibration data will be as important as the science data so we can really understand what the basement of understanding will be. Instead of jumping into data on new planets we haven’t seen before, we want to look carefully at data we understand really well so we can fully characterize what the systematics and uncertainties are. You don’t jump in with your lowest signal to noise faintest targets. Instead you go after bright high signal objects that you understand super well].
Avi Loeb, astrophysicist and Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science at Harvard University::
“My hope is that JWST will discover something new about the cosmic dawn, which was not anticipated in my two textbooks “When Did the First Stars Form?” and “The First Galaxies in the Universe”, published a decade ago.
“The nearest habitable exoplanet is illuminated by infrared light from its host dwarf star, Proxima Centauri. If a JWST-like telescope was launched by Proxima-b scientists, then they could see its images directly with their infrared eyes.”
Maxwell Moe, dailygalaxy.com editor and astrophysicist, NASA Einstein Fellow at the University of Arizona:
“JWST will transform our understanding of the early, high-redshift universe, which was extremely metal poor. Elements like carbon, oxygen, and iron existed in only trace amounts, less than a thousandth the abundance we see today in nearby stars and galaxies. There is strong evidence that star formation and evolution behave differently at lower metallicities compared to solar abundances, but we can only push the limits so far with existing telescopes and datasets. JWST will probe stellar populations toward substantially higher redshift and thus lower metallicities, revealing new insights into the physical processes that formed the first generations of stars and galaxies.”
James E. Peebles, Nobel Prize in Physics in 2019 and Albert Einstein Professor of Science, Emeritus, at Princeton University:
“I hope we’ll be surprised once again!”
Adam Riess, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics and Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute.
“I hope it works and exceeds our ‘expectations’ (as codified by The Exposure Time Calculator).”
[Editor’s Note: Given the brightness of an object, the exposure time calculator estimates the time necessary to achieve the targeted signal to noise ratio. It accounts for the throughput of the instrument (how many photons from the object are actually recorded by the instrument) and various sources of noise –sky background, dark current in the detectors if not sufficiently cold].
Avi Shporer, dailygalaxy.com editor and astrophysicist at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, formerly a NASA Sagan Fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory:
“The Hubble Space Telescope is today a household name. It has revolutionized astronomy with its many discoveries over the last three decades, and has inspired a generation of scientists. The James Webb Space Telescope will become just that and much more, as it is superior to Hubble in any aspect. Personally, I am looking forward to what JWST will be able to tell us about exoplanets and the composition of their atmospheres. While the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have observed exoplanets, those telescopes were not built in order to study exoplanets, simply because they were built before exoplanets were discovered. JWST is the first large (Great Observatory-class) space telescope that was built with exoplanets in mind, so it was designed in order to study those alien worlds.
“Keep in mind that while the launch was successful, JWST is still on its long way to its final destination at the 2nd Lagrange point. Moreover, the telescope was tightly folded and packed inside the launch vehicle, and during the next few weeks it will have many unfolding steps, each of which is a single point of failure. It’s easy to forget that immediately after Hubble was launched it suffered from a crippling flaw in its mirror, which fortunately was fixed a few years later by astronauts. So as you can imagine there are many people at NASA that are having many sleepless nights until the JWST deployment is complete.”