What Will the James Webb Space Telescope See?

Stars, galaxies, planets - oh my! Here’s what NASA’s most powerful space telescope yet has its sights set on in space.

By NASA

Webb Science Slide 2 by Adolf Schaller for STScINASA

Webb will explore an era...

... that no space telescope has explored before.

Webb’s infrared vision was designed to study every phase of more than 13.5 billion years of cosmic history — starting from about ~200 million years after the big bang, a time period we’ve never studied before.

Webb Science Slide 3 (2006-09-21) by NASA, ESA, and S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF TeamNASA

Webb is designed to see the very first stars and galaxies.

In a process called cosmological redshifting, light is stretched from shorter wavelengths to longer wavelengths as the universe expands. That means light from the very first stars and galaxies reaches us as infrared light — which Webb specializes in!

Webb Science Slide 4 by NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University)NASA

Webb will examine how galaxies change over time.

The beautiful spiral and elliptical galaxies we’re familiar with did not always look this way. Not only can Webb analyze how galaxies form, interact, and change, but it will even be able to map out their composition and structure.

Webb Science Slide 5 by NASA/JPL-CaltechNASA

Webb will investigate supermassive black holes.

At the center of almost every massive galaxy is a supermassive black hole, and Webb will learn more about how these black holes impact their host galaxies. Curious about how much a black hole weighs? Webb can also measure a black hole’s mass!

Hubble's Pillars of Creation in visible light by NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)NASA

Webb will be able to peer through a veil of cosmic dust.

Stars and planets form in clouds of gas and dust. Visible light cannot penetrate these clouds, but infrared light can. As a demonstration, here’s the iconic “Pillars of Creation” taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in visible light...

Webb Science Slide 7 by NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage TeamNASA

...and here it is again in near-infrared light, also by Hubble. As you can see, a multitude of previously hidden stars were revealed! Webb’s capabilities will allow us to see infrared light from celestial objects in even greater clarity and sensitivity than Hubble.

Webb Science Slide 8 by ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. C. Tan (Chalmers University & University of Virginia), R. Fedriani (Chalmers University); Acknowledgment: Judy SchmidtNASA

Webb will observe the birth and death of stars.

 Because Webb can look inside the dusty clouds where stars form, it will be able to study the conditions that lead to new stars and investigate where very young stars live. Webb will also study the gas and dust ejected from dying stars.

Webb Science Slide 9 by L. Hustak and J. Olmsted, STScINASA

Webb will study the atmospheres of distant planets.

By analyzing the starlight that passes through an exoplanet’s atmosphere (a technique known as transit spectroscopy), Webb can tell us about the molecules and elements in its atmosphere. We could also learn about characteristics of the planet, including its color and weather!

Webb Science Slide 10 by Credit: NASA/JPL-CaltechNASA

Are there other Earth-like planets? Webb can investigate if there is potential water, carbon dioxide, or other building blocks of life as we know it in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. Webb will analyze the TRAPPIST-1 system, made up of seven rocky, Earth-size worlds.

Webb Science Slide 11 (2013-07-09) by NASA/JPL-CaltechNASA

Webb will turn its eye towards Mars.

While NASA’s Mars rovers scour the ground, Webb will survey the Martian atmosphere from above — searching for clues in Mars’ past to help us learn more about Earth.

Webb Science Slide 12 (2019-06-27) by NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley)NASA

Webb will look at the outer planets of our own solar system.

 Webb will scan the atmospheres of the gas giants — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — to map their weather, temperature, and chemical structure.

Europa, Jupiter's Icy Moon (2014-11-21) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI InstituteNASA

Webb will dive into researching ocean worlds.

Two of Webb’s targets, Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, are known as “ocean worlds” because scientists believe they may have liquid oceans beneath their surfaces. Webb will study the plumes of water that have been observed on their surfaces.

Charon and Pluto: Strikingly Different Worlds (2015-10-01) by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research InstituteNASA

Webb will inspect asteroids, comets, and other small objects

Webb can detect and study the small, rocky objects in our solar system to learn more about their composition. Webb will also follow up on NASA’s New Horizons mission in investigating the dwarf planet Pluto.

Webb Science Slide 15 by NASA, ESA and J. Olmsted (STScI)NASA

That’s not all! Webb will also see the unexpected…

Webb will unlock a rich treasure chest of infrared data. While scientists will point Webb at a variety of objects, Webb will also be able to discover things we can’t even imagine at the moment. What else do you think Webb will see?

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