Over the last 25 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has revolutionized our view of the cosmos. The telescope has looked back in time to galaxies that formed within the first billion years after the Big Bang, given us an unprecedented view of the wealth of galaxies that populate the Universe, and shown us some of the first-ever glimpses of light from planets outside our own Solar System. JWST and its suite of 4 science instruments were designed specifically to push ahead in those areas where Hubble made its biggest contributions: from the study of the first galaxies to the origins of life.
JWST’s sensitivity to infrared light will allow it to detect the light from the very first galaxies, and peer deep into the dense dusty and cold regions where new stars and planets are forming. Particularly exciting is the prospect of studying the chemical signatures of molecules in exoplanetary atmospheres, as the planets transit in front of their host stars. The broad infrared wavelength coverage of JWST gives it a critical advantage: much of this light does not reach the Earth’s surface and is therefore accessible only to space telescopes.
With its unique design and wide range of capabilities, JWST will not only help us answer some of the biggest questions in astrophysics; it’s likely to make entirely new and unexpected discoveries that will drive research for many decades to come.