Exploring the Milky Way, from its spiraling arms to its central black hole.
Our Milky Way galaxy contains billions of stars that congregate in spiral arms and a dense, turbulent core surrounding a supermassive black hole. Even within the same galaxy, immense distances separate our solar system from its closest neighbors; the nearest stars are over four light-years away in the Alpha Centauri system.
Telescopes have shown us our galactic neighborhood in dazzling clarity. The Hubble Space Telescope has allowed us to watch the explosive death of massive stars, study the remnants they left behind, and witness newborn stars arising from clouds of gas and dust. The James Webb Space Telescope will use its infrared instruments to explore further into the hidden wavelengths of light beyond the red end of the visible spectrum, revealing unseen regions and features of the Milky Way.
Astronomers anticipate exciting new areas of science to open up after using Webb to study stars at the beginning and end of their “lifecycle,” as well as stars’ behavior around the galaxy’s central supermassive black hole. Webb will also study the puzzling, dim brown dwarfs, which have thrown traditional definitions of stars and planets into question.
Not only will Webb's observations of the stars and other components of our galaxy help astronomers clarify our understanding of its inner workings, it will help to define what's normal for our cosmic neighborhood—so that when we detect something out of the ordinary, we'll know it.