The world was dazzled by the first images released from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) this summer. These pictures reveal our universe in mind-boggling detail, from stars being born in dusty nebulae to the oldest galaxies racing toward the unknown. In a discussion at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, N.Y., John Mather, senior project scientist of JWST, and astronomer Wendy Freedman of the University of Chicago, a previous chair of the Giant Magellan Telescope’s board of directors, talked about the past, present and future of JWST with Columbia University theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, director of sciences at Pioneer Works.
The night started with a history lesson. Mather and Freeman each briefly detailed their own work before diving into that of historical astronomers—Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble and others—whose discoveries paved the way for JWST’s success. They discussed how its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, peered into the dark regions of space and surprised people with the galaxies it found. “You really needed a powerful telescope to take that next leap after Hubble,” Freeman said.
Building a telescope capable of exceeding Hubble’s capabilities was a daunting task. And according to Freeman, the only scientist who seemed relaxed about strapping the multi-billion-dollar instrument to a rocket and shooting it into space was Mather. His confidence in the team of JWST engineers let him keep his cool, Mather explained, as a video blur of the intricate telescope-folding process ran on a big screen behind him.
Finally, the scientists explained the first images captured by JWST. For each, the screen in the background lit up with the picture. The researchers said they were excited to see what this advanced telescope might capture next. “We’re going to learn something about pretty much every aspect of astronomy,” Freeman said—and it’s the serendipitous things that we haven’t even thought about yet that might be the most interesting.