A Webb of Wonder: The James Webb Space Telescope

By Julia Simpson

The project that would eventually become the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was initially proposed in 19961, 2. The goal was to build a powerful telescope specifically designed to image in infrared, allowing scientists to see through cosmic dust clouds and look further into the history of the universe than ever before2. With the official design beginning in 2002 and construction beginning in 20042, the JWST was initially projected to cost Congress $1-3.5 billion and launch in 2010,2 but in the end, the JWST was a 25-year, $9.6-billion undertaking2. The JWST project required the combined efforts of 20,000+ people3 (the current team consists of over 1,000 people in 17+ countries4), and called for the invention of specialized new technologies, such as the advanced, active-cooling “cryocooler” needed for keeping one the telescope’s infrared instruments functional2, 5  and the array of over 250,000 hair-width, window-like “microshutters,” necessary for the light-intensity recordings of another infrared instrument2, 6.The telescope survived two decades of delays, re-designs, budget expansions, and even a 16-day ocean trek in the water-tight, vibration-stable transportation chamber of a ship whose voyage details were purposefully obscured to the public for fear of piracy2, 7, 8.

Launch occurred from the Guiana Space Center on the clear Christmas morning of 202110, and in the weeks that followed, the JWST (Fig. 1) survived hundreds of possible “single-point failures,” critical junctures at which a failure would jeopardize the entire mission3. Now, after such enormous effort, the JWST has finally arrived at its celestial destination: a carefully chosen location called the second Earth-Sun Lagrange point, or “L2”. L2 is a sun-orbiting, heat-shieldable position in which the telescope’s view of space will never be interrupted by the Earth or the Moon11 – and oh my stars, was it all worth it.  

Figure 1: The JWST during its construction; photo credit to the image gallery published by the Goddard Space Flight Center, which has made hundreds of photos of the JWST’s construction available for the public9.

At a White House event on Monday, July 11th, 2022, the first image from the JWST was officially unveiled to the public12, 13. The image, known as “Webb’s First Deep Field14” (Fig. 2) is aimed at a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723, but includes thousands of other galaxies13. According to NASA, the region of sky captured by the image is comparable to “the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length,” a pointed bit of imagery that emphasizes just how mind-bendingly massive space is. In Webb’s First Deep Field, the JWST’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) perceives infrared wavelengths of light not detectable by Hubble12, 13.

Figure 2: Webb’s First Deep Field14, the first JWST image released to the public.

All galaxies in this image, including the central SMACS 0723 cluster, appear as they did 4.6 billion years ago. This is an important concept to grasp when looking at JWST images: since the light being detected by the JWST had to travel the distance between the image subject and the telescope’s detection apparatus, and the subjects are so astronomically far away, any images we see of them are effectively a direct look into the past. To clarify this further: light travels at a constant speed of 186,000 miles per second through space, which amounts to approximately six trillion miles in one year15. This creates the term “light-year,” a unit of distance describing how far light can travel in an Earth year. Since the SMACS 0723 cluster is 4.6 billion light-years away, its light takes 4.6 billion light-years to reach us, so any image we take of it can only ever show is what it looked like 4.6 billion years ago. The Earth is estimated to be just 4.54 billion years old16. If by any chance aliens were looking back in our direction from the SMACS 0723 cluster with similar technology to the JWST, there wouldn’t even be an Earth yet for them to wave hello to.

Now that you have this context, allow me to briefly present to you some of the incredible images released from the JWST since Webb’s First Deep Field:

Figure 3: The “Cosmic Cliffs” of the Carina Nebula17, imaged by the JWST.

Cosmic Cliffs” in the Carina Nebula17 (Fig. 3): Imaged here by the JWST’s NIRCam, this landscape-like region of the larger Carina Nebula consists of “cliffs” that extend up to “7 light-years high” from peak to trough. Also pictured are “stellar nurseries,” offering insight into the early stages of star formation, a phenomenon that has been challenging to observe18.

Figure 4: Stephan’s Quintet19, imaged by the JWST.

Stephan’s Quintet19” (Fig. 4): First discovered in 1877 by French astronomer Edouard Stephan, this cluster of five galaxies in the Pegasus constellation was actually depicted in the 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life” as embodiments of angels! Here, the JWST shows the galaxies in unprecedented detail, including “shock waves” as one galaxy “smashes through the cluster,” as well as images of the supermassive black hole at the center of the NGC 7319 galaxy.  Observing this cluster will help unravel remaining mysteries of galaxy evolution20.

Figure 5: The Southern Ring Nebula21, imaged using two different JWST infrared instruments. 

“Southern Ring Nebula21 (Fig. 5): a neighbor to us at mere 25,000 light-years down the cosmic block, the Southern Ring Nebula is a planetary nebula with a two-star system at its heart. These photos, taken by two of the JWST’s infrared imagers, reveal previously-unknown details of the process of star death22.

Figure 6: Jupiter and one of its moons, Europa, imaged by the JWST23.

Jupiter and Europa23 (Fig. 6): This image of the gas giant and one of its moons, Europa, includes the planet’s famed Great Red Spot, “a storm big enough to swallow the Earth23”. NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper Mission will soon be dispatched to investigate Europa’s icy crust and determine whether the liquid water that may lie beneath its surface may contain life23, 24.

Figure 7: Data revealing the atmospheric composition of exoplanet WASP-96b, as detected by the JWST25.

WASP-96b Atmosphere Composition25 (Fig. 7): when JWST astronomers at Baltimore’s Space Science Telescope Institute first saw these data, “they gasped and applauded26”. Why? Because the spectra showed “evidence of water vapor,” along with other unexpected conditions, in the analysis of exoplanet WASP-96b (an exoplanet is a planet that orbits a star other than our Sun27). This planet is “highly unlikely to be home to anything living,” but the fact that such detection was possible bodes well for the JWST’s planned studies of additional exoplanets26.

In 2006, the team responsible for the JWST project published a paper outlining the technological capabilities and research goals of their innovative new telescope28 which are categorized into four themes:

  1. “The End of the Dark Ages: First Light and Reionization,” investigating major events that occurred in the early universe and exploring the properties of the earliest galaxies28. Excitingly, the JWST appears to be providing answers in that department already, as two research teams analyzing data from the JWST’s GLASS survey identified a galaxy called GLASS-z13 (Fig. 8) that dates to just 300 million years post-Big Bang and is the current record holder for oldest galaxy ever seen29.
Figure 8: The GLASS-z13 galaxy, spotted in recently-released JWST data;  currently the oldest galaxy ever seen29.

2. “The Assembly of Galaxies,” investigating (among other things) what roles starbursts and black holes play in galaxy formation, as well as “what physical processes determine galaxy properties28

3. “The Birth of Stars and Protoplanetary Systems,” investigating how stars form, evolve, and die, as well as “the physical processes that produce stars, planets and debris disks28

4. “Planetary Systems and the Origins of Life,” investigating the establishment of habitable zones and seeking understanding of “the chemical and physical history of the small and large objects that formed the Earth and delivered the necessary chemical precursors for life28”.

Now that the JWST is operational, a long-anticipated slate of scientific projects are poised to begin29, 30. These projects, collectively referred to as the “Cycle 1 General Observers program,” allocate JWST operation time to teams of scientists upon submission of a successful research proposal30. This process was highly competitive and selective and only a quarter of submitted proposals were awarded time controlling the JWST31. A full catalog of the upcoming projects can be found here, with research endeavors sorted into subject categories including (but not limited to) Exoplanets and Disks, Galaxies, Intergalactic Medium and the Circumgalactic Medium, and Supermassive Black Holes30. Of the projects green-lit by the Space Telescope Science Institute, which manages the JWST’s time, about 25 are for PhD students hoping to do their dissertation work on the data they can gather using the JWST.

One such student, Aliza Beverage of UC Berkeley, hopes her research will shed light on why some of the earliest galaxies to come into existence are no longer forming stars. I’ll leave you with a quote from Beverage31 that resonates with me, though the differences between her research and mine here at the College of Medicine are as vast as the cosmos: “I feel like I’m part of a generation that’s going to be defined by the James Webb Space Telescope.” I, for one, am inclined to agree. More information about JWST can be found through NASA, Northrop Grumman (the leading industry team that built the telescope), or the JWST’s own website.


  • The James Webb Space Telescope, a massive scientific endeavor decades in the making, is now in operation, and the incredible first images released from the telescope promise to answer long-held questions and unveil new mysteries about our expansive universe.


  1. Roulette, J. (2021, December 23). How NASA’s biggest telescope beat loose screws, loose budgets and loose clamps. The New York Times. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/23/science/webb-nasa-launch-delay.html
  2. WEBB Space Telescope. (n.d.). Mission Timeline. WebbTelescope.org. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://webbtelescope.org/webb-science/the-observatory/mission-timeline
  3. Shapiro, A. (2022, July 17). The James Webb Telescope had 344 ‘single point failures’ before launch. then, Success. opb. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.opb.org/article/2022/07/17/james-webb-telescope-had-344-single-point-failures-before-launch-then-success/
  4. Garner, R. (Ed.). (2021, October 20). The James Webb Space Telescope Team. NASA. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/webb/team/index.html
  5. NASA / James Webb Space Telescope / Goddard Space Flight Center. (n.d.). Cryocooler Webb/NASA. About: Webb Innovations. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://jwst.nasa.gov/content/about/innovations/cryocooler.html
  6. NASA / James Webb Space Telescope / Goddard Space Flight Center. (n.d.). Microshutters Webb/NASA. About: Webb Innovations. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://jwst.nasa.gov/content/about/innovations/microshutters.html
  7. Atkinson, N. (2021, October 13). Webb Has Arrived Safely at the Launch Site. Universe Today. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.universetoday.com/152908/webb-has-arrived-safely-at-the-launch-site/
  8. Koren, M. (2021, March 12). Who Would Kidnap a Space Telescope? The Atlantic. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/03/nasa-james-webb-space-telescope-pirates/618268/
  9. NASA / James Webb Space Telescope / Goddard Space Flight Center. (n.d.). From “The Story of Webb,” a digital visual archive of the Jwst’s construction. Multimedia Image Galleries. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://webb.nasa.gov/content/multimedia/images.html.
  10. Malik, T. (2021, December 25). Christmas launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has sparked some epic holiday memes. Space.com. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.space.com/james-webb-space-telescope-christmas-launch-memes
  11. NASA / James Webb Space Telescope / Goddard Space Flight Center. (n.d.). Orbit – Webb/NASA. About: Webb Orbit. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://webb.nasa.gov/content/about/orbit.html
  12. Millman, O., & Sample, I. (2022, July 11). First images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Reveal Ancient Galaxies. The Guardian. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/jul/11/nasa-james-webb-telescope-ancient-galaxy-images
  13. Garner, R. (Ed.). (2022, July 11). NASA’s Webb delivers deepest infrared image of universe yet. NASA: Webb First Images. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2022/nasa-s-webb-delivers-deepest-infrared-image-of-universe-yet
  14. Webb’s First Deep Field. (n.d.). WEBB Space Telescope. Retrieved July 31, 2022.
  15. Overbye, D., Chang, K., & Sokol, J. (2022, July 12). Webb Telescope Reveals a New Vision of an Ancient Universe. The New York Times. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/12/science/james-webb-telescope-images-nasa.html
  16. Age of the Earth. National Geographic Society. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/resource-library-age-earth
  17. WEBB Space Telescope. (n.d.). “Cosmic Cliffs” in the Carina Nebula (NIRCam Compass Image). WebbTelescope.org. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://webbtelescope.org/contents/media/images/2022/031/01G77RG0GZS7HC83VKQPAWQ5E8
  18. Garner, R. (Ed.). (2022, July 11). NASA’s Webb Reveals Cosmic Cliffs, Glittering Landscape of Star Birth. NASA / Webb First Images. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2022/nasa-s-webb-reveals-cosmic-cliffs-glittering-landscape-of-star-birth
  19. WEBB Space Telescope. (n.d.). Stephan’s Quintet (NIRCam and MIRI Composite Image) . WebbTelescope.org. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://webbtelescope.org/contents/media/images/2022/034/01G7DA5ADA2WDSK1JJPQ0PTG4A
  20. Garner, R. (Ed.). (2022, July 11). NASA’s Webb Sheds Light on Galaxy Evolution, Black Holes. NASA / Webb First Images. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2022/nasa-s-webb-sheds-light-on-galaxy-evolution-black-holes
  21. WEBB Space Telescope. (n.d.). Southern Ring Nebula (NIRCam and MIRI Images Side by Side). WebbTelescope.org. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://webbtelescope.org/contents/media/images/2022/033/01G709QXZPFH83NZFAFP66WVCZ
  22. Garner, R. (Ed.). (2022, July 11). NASA’s Webb Captures Dying Star’s Final ‘Performance’ in Fine Detail. NASA / Webb First Images. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2022/nasa-s-webb-captures-dying-star-s-final-performance-in-fine-detail
  23. Fisher, A. (2022, July 14). Webb Images of Jupiter and More Now Available in Commissioning Data. NASA: James Webb Space Telescope. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://blogs.nasa.gov/webb/2022/07/14/webb-images-of-jupiter-and-more-now-available-in-commissioning-data/
  24. Greicius, T. (Ed.). (2015, June 16). Europa Clipper Overview. NASA / Europa Clipper. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://www.nasa.gov/europa/overview/index.html
  25. WEBB Space Telescope. (n.d.). Exoplanet WASP-96 b (NIRISS Transmission Spectrum). WebbTelescope.org. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://webbtelescope.org/contents/media/images/2022/032/01G72VSFW756JW5SXWV1HYMQK4?page=2&filterUUID=91dfa083-c258-4f9f-bef1-8f40c26f4c97
  26. The New York Times. (2022, July 13). Five Things Learned From the Webb Telescope’s First Images. The New York Times. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/article/nasa-webb-telescope-images-galaxies.html
  27. Erickson, K., & Doyle, H. (Eds.). (2022, January 10). What Is an Exoplanet? NASA Science / Space Place: Explore Earth and Space! . Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/all-about-exoplanets/en/
  28. Gardner, J. P., Mather, J. C., Clampin, M., Doyon, R., Greenhouse, M. A., Hammel, H. B., Hutchings, J. B., Jakobsen, P., Lilly, S. J., Long, K. S., Lunine, J. I., McCaughrean, M. J., Mountain, M., Nella, J., Rieke, G. H., Rieke, M. J., Rix, H.-W., Smith, E. P., Sonneborn, G., … Wright, G. S. (2006). The James Webb Space Telescope. Space Science Reviews, 123, 485–606. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/s11214-006-8315-7
  29. O’Callaghan, J. (2022, July 29). Two Weeks in, the Webb Space Telescope is Reshaping Astronomy. Quanta Magazine. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://www.quantamagazine.org/two-weeks-in-the-webb-space-telescope-is-reshaping-astronomy-20220725/
  30. General Observer Programs in Cycle 1 . Space Telescope Science Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://www.stsci.edu/jwst/science-execution/approved-programs/cycle-1-go
  31. Kulkarni, S. (2022, July 25). A new generation of scientists gets ready to commandeer the James Webb Space Telescope. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2022-07-25/new-generation-of-scientists-to-commandeer-nasa-james-webb-space-telescope
  32. NASA. (n.d.). Webb Space Telescope GSFC/NASA. NASA / James Webb Space Telescope / Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://webb.nasa.gov/
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