After 25 years of preparations, scheduled delays, and several budget overruns, the James Webb Space Telescope was finally launched on Christmas Day 2021. This 10 billion dollars machine, with its giant hexagonal primary mirror, is the largest and most powerful telescope in space. But what is this hype around the Webb all about? What exactly is Webb going to see in the deep space that has not been observed earlier?

Well, the list of JWST’s tasks is quite a long one, and here, we have compiled a list of the six most exciting observations that the James Webb Telescope is going to make!

The formation of the first galaxies

Ever since the James Webb Space Telescope was proposed, people referred to it as a time machine. However, it’s not the so-called fictional time machine that will help us jump back and forth between generations, but it’s a time machine that will time-travel back to the era when the earliest galaxies were forming right after the Big Bang.

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A custom-built shipping container carrying the James Webb Space Telescope, ahead of its launch in December | Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

The farther a telescope can look, the more it can see back in time. As our Universe is expanding, the light from distant galaxies will be stretched out by the expanding Universe. By the time the light reaches our telescopes, its original wavelength will get shifted from visible or ultraviolet to infrared due to red shifting. And Webb will be able to pick up these infrared signals, thereby giving a peep into the formation of the first galaxies and revealing how our Universe looked just 100 to 250 million years after the big bang.

Since the James Webb Telescope will be maintained at a cold temperature like never before, it will be the first telescope to observe infrared wavelengths of this range.

The birth of stars

Infrared light has a much longer wavelength than visible and ultraviolet radiation. Due to this, it can penetrate deeper into dust and is less hindered by the tiny dust particles that come into its way. This allows these radiations to escape from the dust clouds, revealing things that get hidden from our eyes at normal visible wavelengths.

Artist's impression of the James Webb Space Telescope in space | Image: ESA
Artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope in space | Image: ESA

The stellar formation occurs in the corners of the Universe, where the densest interstellar dust is present. Hubble had limited infrared capabilities that barely scratched the surface for studying the stellar formation. Now, James Webb Space Telescope’s broader infrared range will enable scientists to peer deeper into these regions of star formation.

Thanks to Webb’s high infrared sensitivity and spectacular resolution, scientists will be able to see through the dust to study the birth of stars with unprecedented detail. They might also be able to figure out how the dust cooks up a star, why stars form in clusters, and how planets further form around a star.

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Studying black holes from a different angle

Black holes are celestial objects that are so massive and dense that nothing, not even light, can escape from their gravitational attraction. Over the years, scientists have been employing different techniques to unlock the mysteries surrounding these kings of gravity. For instance, we have used X-ray telescopes to study specific kinds of black holes. These telescopes look at phenomena that are energetic enough to produce X-rays, such as the violent shredding of stars wandering too close to a black hole. However, we haven’t been able to look at things going on at the colder ends. And this is where James Webb will play its part.

The JWST’s infrared instruments will allow scientists to see what is happening around the black hole’s unraveled neighborhood, particularly the cooler gases and stars dancing around. Webb’s infrared vision will allow us to peer past the dusty veil, eventually providing valuable information concerning the temperatures, speeds, and chemical compositions of the stellar chunks of black holes. This data can further be used to learn more about the mass and size of the black holes.

Dark matter observations by the James Webb Space Telescope

Dark matter is a hypothetical form of matter that probably accounts for approximately 21% of the matter in the observable Universe. Unlike normal matter, dark matter does not interact with electromagnetic force. Hence, it does not absorb, reflect, or emit light, making it extremely hard to spot. However, its presence can be inferred from the gravitational effects it has on visible matter. As a result, several ultra-sensitive instruments have been constructed to detect the bizarre hypothetical particles associated with dark matter. These include vats of liquid xenon stored miles underground and telescopes looking for dark matter particles decaying into things we can see and measure, like gamma rays. And now, Webb is also going to join this hunt for dark matter as well.

Although Webb won’t see dark matter directly, it will employ gravitational lensing techniques to explore dark matter. Precisely, it will study the most distant galaxies and look at their rotation to see if dark matter is playing its part or not.

Revealing the mysteries associated with exoplanets

Observing exoplanets, the distant worlds lying beyond our solar system isn’t an easy task. As they easily get lost in the glare of their host stars, trying to detect them is like looking for a firefly hovering next to a lighthouse’s brilliant beacon. However, the James Webb Space Telescope is equipped with unique optical systems called coronagraphs, which use masks specially designed to block out as much starlight as possible to study faint exoplanets.

Following this, Webb will observe exoplanets as light from their parent stars pass through the planet’s atmosphere. This will aid in revealing their chemical composition and the gases that are present there. Eventually, this will provide a better look at the possibility of life hovering there. Amongst all other targets, TRAPPIST-1 system is of particular interest, where three of its seven planets are in the habitable zone, and one may even harbor liquid water.

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An artist’s impression of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, based on available data about the planets’ diameters, masses, and distances from the host star, as of February 2018. It will be an interesting target from the James Webb Space Telescope | Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Detailed observations of objects in our solar system

By now, you must have an image that the James Webb Space Telescope is only focused on cosmology, stellar formation, and exoplanets. But that’s not all! It’s also going to provide exciting glimpses into our solar system as well. It’ll take a closer look at our ice giants: Neptune and Uranus and the dwarf planet Pluto and its fellow Kuiper Belt Objects.

Precisely, JWST will map Neptune and Uranus’s atmospheric temperatures and chemical composition to see how different they are from each other and their gas giant cousins, Jupiter and Saturn. The telescope is also powerful enough to study small icy bodies, including comets, which are crucial leftovers from our solar system’s days of planet formation and probably hold clues to Earth’s origins. As there have been no planned missions dedicated to the outer solar system for years, the new observations made by Webb will play a big part in planning for future planetary missions.

James Webb’s bucket list of observations is quite enticing. We wish Webb a smooth journey ahead!

Learn Astrophysics at Home:

Did you always want to learn how the Universe works? Then, read our 30-article Basics of Astrophysics series absolutely free of cost. From the popular topics such as stars, galaxies, and black holes to the detailed concepts of the subject like the concept of magnitude, the Hertzsprung Russell diagram, redshift, etc., there is something for everyone in this series. All the articles are given here. Happy reading!

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