How did we get here? Are we alone? How does the universe work? These are the questions that have driven astronomy since humanity first turned telescopes on the cosmos. The Hubble Space Telescope edged us ever closer to untangling those mysteries, and now its partner and successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will continue and expand upon its work.
Webb's infrared gaze will sweep our universe from our local solar system to the farthest reaches of the cosmos.
Webb will study how galaxies like ours came into existence, how their stars formed within them and how solar systems arose around those stars. As Webb watches the first generations of the universe's stars come to life, it will examine how the cosmos went from its hydrogen and helium beginnings to the complex structures that became stars, planets, and everything around us — including human beings.
Webb will search for signs of water vapor and other chemicals in the atmospheres of planets beyond our solar system.
In the past two decades, we've found thousands of extrasolar planets — so many that a study now indicates that most stars in the Milky Way have planets. And we've only begun to search for signs of microbial life on the planets and moons within our own solar system. Webb's observations will help us understand how weather and climates work on other worlds, and whether the bodies around us could or ever did support life.
The greatest science Webb reveals may be the questions no one has yet thought to ask.
When scientists sent Hubble into space, they never expected to find that the expansion of the universe was being sped up by the still-mysterious force known as dark energy. Nor did they realize they'd obtain front-seat tickets to watch a comet crash into Jupiter.
Some discoveries are so unexpected that they open new worlds of questions. Tomorrow's astronomers will have an unprecedented tool at their disposal to explore the cosmos. Webb's greatest science may very well lie in areas that have yet to be even imagined.