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How the James Webb Space Telescope transformed astronomy this year

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One year ago, the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST as it's known for short, rocketed into space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And liftoff.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking French). Liftoff from a tropical rainforest to the edge of time itself. James Webb begins a voyage back to the birth of the universe.

JANE RIGBY: JWST launched on Christmas Day and then was a present that took about six months to unwrap, and that unwrapping process was one of the most fun and exhausting and exhilarating times of my life.

SHAPIRO: Jane Rigby is the telescope's Operations Project Scientist. That unwrapping she's referring to is the nerve-wracking unfurling of the telescope's sunshade and mirror once it reached space. Things went smoothly, and ever since, the telescope has been wowing the world with unprecedented views of planets, stars and galaxies both near and very, very far.

RIGBY: We're studying, you know, where stars are forming in these galaxies in ways that just are, like, laughably not possible with any other telescope.

SHAPIRO: In addition to revealing the life cycle of stars, the telescope has trained its eye on objects right in our cosmic backyard, like the planet Neptune. JWST astronomer Heidi Hammel recalls when she saw the telescope's first photo of the icy giant.

HEIDI HAMMEL: I was so emotional. I first started crying, and then I started shouting and calling all my relatives to come look at this picture of JWST's image of Neptune.

SHAPIRO: The image shows a system of crystal-clear rings circling Neptune, which itself appears as a ghostly glowing orb. Hammel says it's the first full view of the planet's rings in decades since NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by in 1989. Even the JWST's predecessor, Hubble, wasn't up to the task.

HAMMEL: Hubble Space Telescope tried hard, but with JWST, with just a few short images, boom. The ring systems just pop right out, and they're just gorgeous.

SHAPIRO: Other astronomers, like Brant Robertson at the University of California Santa Cruz, have been using the telescope to see further back in time than we've ever been able to, to galaxies born during the very beginnings of the universe.

BRANT ROBERTSON: Thirteen point four billion years ago, these galaxies had formed.

SHAPIRO: Robertson says that while he had a sense of what was out there not long after the Big Bang, the telescope provided never-before-seen details.

ROBERTSON: So it's like opening a book that you, you know, wanted to know the ending of for a long time but had been holding off on reading that concluding paragraph and then finally seeing the full story revealed to you.

SHAPIRO: And the telescope still has many more stories to tell, according to Jane Rigby, the project scientist we heard from earlier.

RIGBY: We are studying planets in our own solar system, atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars, how stars form and how they die, how they explode, galaxies like our own Milky Way.

SHAPIRO: The project's science mission is set to last at least five years. But Rigby says it has enough propellant on board to last much longer, perhaps even 20 years.

RIGBY: We actually, at this point, don't know what will limit the lifetime of this amazing new telescope. It's still so young, but we fully expect at this point to get a long and productive science lifetime out of this telescope.

SHAPIRO: Meaning new discoveries could be beaming down for many years to come. We've collected some of the gorgeous images the James Webb Space Telescope has captured in its first year since launch. And you can see them right now at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEEKND SONG, "BLINDING LIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.