Designed to answer many of the biggest outstanding questions in astronomy today
The James Webb Space Telescope will be very impressive. Its unique capabilities will allow us to understand the history of our Universe, and our place within it, better than ever before. The telescope has a lot to do, perhaps one day observing a comet in our own back yard and looking for light from the first galaxies to exist in the Universe the next. Which science questions interest you the most?
When did the first stars start to shine? The more distant an object, the longer it takes for its light to reach us which makes any telescope a window onto our past. With it's keen infrared eye, Webb can see all the way back to the time the first stars were still around. We think these mammoth stars lived very bright, very short lives. Though they weren't around long, they were very important. They lit up the cosmic dark ages, changing the Universe forever. They should also end their lives in titanic explosions, the leftovers of which can also light up the regions around them. Awesome.
A simulation of what Webb may see when taking the deepest images of our Universe. Image credit: STScI
How do you make a Milky Way? Your home galaxy, the Milky Way is an oasis of stars in the inky vastness of outer space. As galaxies go, it's pretty chunky. Did it start chunky or did it start small and grow by joining up with other galaxies? The challenge for us is to join the dots. Every galaxy picture we take is only a snapshot in time so we need as many as possible to see if we can make a galaxy evolution 'movie'. Webb will be fantastic at joining up the earliest galaxies with those seen around us today.
A galaxy menagerie in infrared light. Each one is unique. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Birth of Stars and Planets
How do you cook up a star like our Sun? Recipe: take a load of gas and dust, mix well, add gravity. We know this is happening around us in beautiful star-forming regions but much of the detail of this stellar cookery is hidden. Frustratingly, the same gas and dust which is doing the cooking is also hiding the 'protostars' from view. Webb can peer through these dense clumps, shedding new light on their beginnings. Perhaps more importantly, we will also be able to see the leftovers from this process, the very beginnings of planets around these baby stars.
The famous Orion Nebula, our nearest star-forming region. Image credit: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (STScI/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team
Exoplanets & Origins of Life
Is the Earth unique? We now know that, on average, there is at least one planet for every star in the galaxy. In short, the Milky Way is teeming with the things. However, each planet is different. We need to know more about them in order to understand how rare our special Earth is. Webb will be able to 'sniff' the atmospheres of some favourably placed worlds, looking for clues as to what chemical elements are present. It can also study leftover materials from the planet formation process. This 'comet-like' stuff contains many of the chemical building blocks needed for life to begin on other worlds.
An artists impression of the protoplanetary disc known to exist around young star HL Tauri. Image credit: NASA, ESA, L. Calçada
Keen for more on Webb science? Follow the link below.