Space telescope James Webb looks at the dust next door

Space telescope James Webb looks at the dust next door

This is part of star nebula N79 in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring galaxy of the Milky Way. The nebula is about 1,630 light-years wide and the gas and dust within it are forming new stars at a rapid pace. The bright object in the center is a young star. If you look closely, you might see that the photo was taken with the James Webb (JWST) space telescope. The six peaks from the center of the photo are an artifact created by the hexagonal shape of JWST’s mirror.

This photo shows once again that JWST can do things that other telescopes cannot. With its sensitive infrared sensors, it can – unlike its predecessor Hubble – look into dust clouds to see how stars form. In addition, JWST can create extremely detailed images of parts of the sky billions of light-years from Earth. JWST is therefore extremely popular.

But astronomers and planetary scientists who have submitted a research proposal in which they want to use JWST now also know that being popular has a downside.

Long, painful job

Astronomers can request time at the space telescope to collect data from a chosen location in the universe. JWST orbits the sun, one and a half million kilometers further than the Earth orbits the sun.

As the telescope circles, JWST focuses – on request – on different areas and celestial bodies. The time astronomers get at the telescope varies from a few minutes to days, depending on the type of research.

Two weeks ago, astronomers from around the world gathered in Baltimore to review the third round of JWST research proposals. It was a long, painful job. The number of applications, 1,931, was historically high. The astronomers in Baltimore therefore have to reject eight out of nine applications. By comparison, for Hubble, usually one in four to one in six could be approved.