How astronomers decided where to point NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope

In late March, Grant Tremblay was sitting at his pc at his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, listening in on a Zoom assembly, when he noticed a string of emails pop up in his inbox. The title of every e mail learn: “Cycle 1 JWST Notification Letter.”

He knew instantly that this was the day he and his colleagues within the astronomy neighborhood had been eagerly awaiting: it was Blacker Friday.

Blacker Friday, to be clear, didn’t have something to do with reductions, or Fridays. (It was a Tuesday.) It was the day that Tremblay, an astrophysicist on the Harvard and Smithsonian Middle for Astrophysics, and different astronomers around the globe, would study if they’d obtain a small period of time to use the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, one of the highly effective house telescopes ever created.

“We wished to reply elementary questions that can not be answered every other manner.”

Blacker Friday is called after Brett Blacker, who co-runs the science insurance policies group on the Space Telescope Science Institute, or STScI. Every year, the institute is liable for deciding on which astronomers will get time to use NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. And every year, after a prolonged decision-making course of, Blacker would ship out a flurry of emails to hopeful astronomers, all on the identical day on the identical time, informing them if their proposals to use the telescope had been accepted or rejected. Thus, Blacker Friday — additionally typically often known as the Blacker Apocalypse — was born.

This yr the stakes have been even larger on Blacker Friday as a result of, for the primary time ever, astronomers have been being knowledgeable if they’d get time with JWST, a brand-new house observatory that’s considerably bigger and extra highly effective than Hubble. Set to launch to deep house on the finish of December, the practically $10 billion NASA-built telescope guarantees the flexibility to peer into the recesses of the Universe like by no means earlier than. Forward of JWST’s launch, STScI had the daunting job of determining which of the 1,173 proposals for the observatory’s first yr of life — often known as Cycle 1 — ought to get time with the telescope. How do you prioritize what probably the most superior piece of house tools on this planet ought to do when it first activates?

Nicely, the science has to be nothing in need of revolutionary.

“What’s deemed most attention-grabbing is science that’s thought of transformational — that can change our view of the universe,” Klaus Pontoppidan, an astronomer and JWST undertaking scientist at STScI, tells The Verge. “We don’t need the observatory to do issues a bit of higher than what has been accomplished earlier than. We wished to reply elementary questions that can not be answered every other manner.”

The Energy of JWST

NASA plans to launch JWST the day earlier than Christmas. However for the astronomy neighborhood, the launch is the true vacation. JWST is without doubt one of the most anticipated house science missions of the twenty first century, because it has the flexibility to reshape astronomy and astrophysics as we all know it.

That’s as a result of the telescope is the closest factor we have now to a time machine. Sporting a 21-foot-wide gold-plated mirror, JWST will probably be in a position to see within the infrared with unbelievable sensitivity. It’ll give you the option to see objects which can be 10 to 100 occasions fainter than what the Hubble Space Telescope can see, and it’ll be able to seeing issues in 10 occasions higher element. It would collect gentle from stars and galaxies positioned up to 13.6 billion light-years away — gentle that has taken 13.6 billion years to attain the telescope’s mirrors. Because the Universe is assumed to be roughly 13.8 billion years previous, the galaxies that JWST will probably be observing doubtless shaped simply 100 to 250 million years after the Massive Bang. Our Universe was in its infancy then, and JWST will probably be offering us with the newborn images.

“Almost each space of astronomy that you can imagine will probably be addressed.”

As well as to peering again in time, the telescope will assist us perceive the large-scale construction of the Universe, and maybe inform us if it’ll go on increasing perpetually. It would peer into the facilities of galaxies, discovering supermassive black holes and serving to astronomers find out how these enigmatic objects have advanced over time. It would observe the births and deaths of stars. It would even look again at our personal Photo voltaic System to examine the faintest objects on the fringe of our cosmic neighborhood. And it is going to be in a position to take a look at the sides of worlds orbiting round distant stars. “Almost each space of astronomy that you can imagine will probably be addressed,” Christine Chen, an affiliate astronomer at STScI, tells The Verge.

An inventive rendering of JWST fully unfurled in house

Picture: NASA

The promise of JWST has all the time been simply over the horizon. Since an iteration of the telescope was first conceived in 1989, the highway to the launchpad has been paved with value overruns and technical points. Naively, NASA initially envisioned a launch between 2007 and 2011, for a complete value between $1 billion and $3.5 billion. However JWST continued to miss one goal launch date after subsequent, while its total cost ballooned to $9.7 billion.

As everybody waited for JWST to materialize, the world of astronomy blossomed. A completely new subject has emerged because the Nineteen Nineties, one which revolves across the examine of planets exterior our Photo voltaic System, or exoplanets. Because the first detection of an exoplanet was confirmed in 1992, we’ve found hundreds of those far-off worlds orbiting alien stars. In 2017, astronomers shocked the world after they introduced the invention of a complete alien photo voltaic system, consisting of seven planets roughly the dimensions of Earth all orbiting round a dwarf star. And three of the seven planets, often known as the TRAPPIST-1 system, sit within the star’s liveable zone, where temperatures are thought to be excellent in order that water can pool on a planet’s floor.

After discovering such a bounty of exoplanets, astronomers are actually keen to discover what’s referred to as Earth 2.0: a planet that’s the dimensions of our world, orbiting a star like our Solar on the proper distance for liquid water to kind. However exoplanets are extremely faint, and conventional strategies for detecting them — like watching stars dim ever so barely as planets move in entrance of them — can’t inform us what could be lurking on their surfaces. JWST, nevertheless, is highly effective sufficient that it could give you the option to detect gentle passing straight by way of the atmospheres of some alien worlds and use that gentle to say what sorts of chemical substances are current within the ambiance. Maybe, it might even detect indicators of life.

“All of our transformational leaps in observational astronomy are enabled by making ever bigger items of glass.”

It’s a functionality nobody actually envisioned when JWST was first being designed, however now it’s thought of one of many extra thrilling areas of science that the telescope will contact upon. It additionally means there are much more people who find themselves very keen to get only a few hours with probably the most superior house telescope over constructed.

“All of our transformational leaps in observational astronomy are enabled by making ever bigger items of glass, proper?” says Tremblay. “And whenever you make a rattling piece of glass that’s giant sufficient — and particularly whenever you launch it into house — the invention house for that observatory grows with time. It doesn’t diminish.”

Selecting the Science

Whereas JWST is in the end a NASA mission, it’s the Space Telescope Science Institute’s job to decide what JWST really does in house. “You possibly can consider us as form of the software program a part of the observatory,” Pontoppidan says, “whereas NASA is the {hardware} half.”

Nevertheless, STScI had to wait a very long time earlier than determining the schedule for JWST’s first yr, and there have been just a few false begins alongside the best way. When it appeared just like the telescope could be prepared to launch in 2019, the Institute referred to as on astronomers to submit their proposals by March 2018. Then only a week earlier than the deadline, NASA introduced that the telescope wouldn’t launch till 2020 on the earliest. STScI abruptly postponed the deadline till a extra concrete launch date was decided.

One other postponement got here once more in March 2020, due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lastly, after what appeared like an eternity, astronomers turned of their proposals by November twenty fourth, 2020, two days earlier than Thanksgiving. Then it was time for STScI to sift by way of the greater than 1,000 concepts that had been submitted.

STScI knew that it couldn’t deal with this course of alone. The Institute created a Time Allocation Committee together with astronomers and astrophysicists from around the globe. They have been separated into 18 panels, every one consisting of about 10 folks tasked with trying over proposals for various areas of house science and rating them primarily based on three vital standards: how a lot the proposal will impression data inside a subfield, how a lot it’ll advance astronomy basically, and whether or not the proposed concept requires the distinctive capabilities of JWST to achieve success. Given simply how many individuals need to use JWST, the Institute didn’t need to allot time to an commentary that might be accomplished with any of the opposite telescopes at present on-line.

“We remorse to inform you…”

With all of those benchmarks in thoughts, the committee obtained to work evaluating the entire proposals. To strive to eradicate as a lot bias as attainable from the choice course of, the method was “twin nameless.” That signifies that the folks writing the proposals had no concept who could be evaluating them, and the folks on the committee had no concept whose proposals they have been analyzing. Because of this, 30 p.c of the profitable proposals are helmed by ladies, and scientists finding out for his or her PhDs additionally noticed extra success in getting their concepts authorized. “Now since no person is aware of who wrote the proposal, college students will be simply as profitable as their mentors,” Chen says.

The realm of sky that COSMOS-Webb will cowl, in contrast to the total Moon and COSMOS Hubble, which surveyed a bigger patch of sky beginning in 2002.

Picture: Jeyhan Kartaltepe (RIT); Caitlin Casey (UT Austin); and Anton Koekemoer (STScI) Graphic Design Credit score: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

After roughly 4 months of painstaking debate, the committee chosen the proposals it discovered to be probably the most transformative. It then gave every proposal a sure variety of hours of commentary time. Finally, STScI selected a total of 266 proposals, submitted by scientists from 41 international locations across the globe.

Tremblay, the Harvard astrophysicist, had submitted 9 proposals for JWST’s first yr. On Blacker Friday, 9 new emails sat in his inbox. (The emails don’t come from Blacker anymore however from the Science Mission Workplace at STScI). He rapidly clicked by way of them and skim one after the subsequent:

“Pricey Dr. Tremblay,

We remorse to inform you…”

He learn the phrase 9 occasions in complete.

It was a disappointment however positively not a shock. “I wasn’t damaged up by not getting time this yr,” Tremblay tells The Verge. “I knew it will be immensely, immensely aggressive for Cycle 1, appropriately. And it’s okay. We’ll resubmit once more.”

Almost 2,000 miles away, Caitlin Casey, an astronomer on the College of Texas, was having a really completely different sort of Blacker Friday. She was at house in Austin, holding her sleeping two-month-old child in her lap, whereas scrolling her telephone. That’s when she noticed the e-mail pop up in her inbox.

“Pricey Dr. Casey,

We’re happy to inform you…”

The bold undertaking she had proposed, referred to as Cosmos Webb, had simply been authorized. And the Institute was giving Casey a whopping 208 hours with JWST to fulfill her undertaking, probably the most of anybody who had submitted proposals. The undertaking will stare at a very giant patch of sky the dimensions of three full Moons, an space that spans up to 63 million gentle years throughout. Doing so will create a portrait of the younger universe comparable to the Hubble’s iconic Hubble Deep Area, which showcased a few of the earliest galaxies we might observe on the time. With JWST’s enhanced functionality, the crew will probably be imaging galaxies which can be even older at even higher ranges of element. “If the Hubble Deep Area have been printed on an eight-and-a-half by 11 sheet of paper, Cosmos Webb could be like a 16-foot by 16-foot mural on the facet of a constructing,” says Casey.

“All I had to say was, ‘We obtained it.’”

Staying silent in order not to wake her sleeping youngster, Casey jubilantly logged into Slack and messaged her colleague on the undertaking, Jeyhan Kartaltepe, an astrophysicist on the Rochester Institute of Expertise.

“All I had to say was, ‘We obtained it,’” Casey tells The Verge. “She was dumbfounded, too. And I believe for the remainder of that day, each her and I, we couldn’t even [focus]. It was a flurry of pleasure and simply overwhelmed with that information.”

An inventive illustration of what the planets within the TRAPPIST-1 system might appear to be.

Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Apart from Cosmos Webb, the seven-planet TRAPPIST-1 system will probably be getting lots of consideration throughout JWST’s first yr, with up to seven completely different packages devoted to finding out this unusual cluster of worlds. JWST will probably be trying within the atmospheres of those planets, in addition to dozens extra we’ve discovered all through the Universe, hoping to decide if these locations could be appropriate for all times as we all know it. And there are a whole bunch extra targets that JWST will observe, together with galaxies, quasars, black holes, and extra.

Whereas the committee tried to be as logical as attainable with their remaining choices, everybody agrees that serendipity does come into play. “In all probability there have been lots of superb packages comparable to ours that have been additionally up for consideration,” says Casey. “There’s all the time a bit of aspect of luck within the remaining choice course of. Perhaps somebody on the panel simply favored the particular manner we offered some info.”

The First Yr

Roughly 10,000 hours of observing time is allotted to completely different teams for JWST’s first yr of life. About 6,000 hours got to the scientists who submitted proposals around the globe, whereas practically 4,000 hours have been already put aside for scientists who helped design and construct JWST and its devices. The STScI additionally has about 460 hours of discretionary time which have been allotted for what is called “Early Launch Observations.” Information from these hours, scheduled to be accomplished within the first 5 months of science, will grow to be public instantly, in order that anybody — even those that didn’t get time with the telescope — can analyze the observations and write their very own research.

Anybody who does the maths will notice that 10,000 hours is definitely greater than the variety of hours in a calendar yr. STScI purposefully overprescribed JWST’s time to account for any snafus. STScI will probably be scheduling JWST’s observations in two-week increments, throughout which period the observatory will point at its meant targets autonomously. Nevertheless, it’s attainable that JWST will fail to execute some instructions correctly from time to time. If that occurs, JWST will merely go on to the subsequent commentary. And the Institute needs to make certain the telescope has fallback plans when such errors happen. “We don’t need to get to the top of the yr, after which run out of observations,” Pontoppidan says.

The James Webb Space Telescope folded up forward of encapsulation on high of its rocket.

Picture: ESA/M.Pedoussaut

STScI can also be planning to carve out time for targets we don’t learn about but. These are occasions just like the explosive destruction of a star, often known as a supernova, or when two significantly dense stars come collectively in a cataclysmic merger, often known as a kilonova. If astronomers spot a very juicy supernova occurring within the sky, JWST’s operators are ready to reorient the schedule in order that they’ll rapidly observe the aftermath of the eruptive occasion.

The prioritization of JWST’s observations will probably be decided by the point of the yr, and where issues are positioned within the sky. However as for the very first commentary the telescope will do, NASA is aware of what it’s — however received’t inform. It’s supposed to be a shock.

Whereas flexibility goes to be key for JWST Cycle 1, STScI ensures that every one the proposals which have been authorized will happen. As a result of every goal within the sky is in JWST’s view twice a yr, if for some motive a goal is missed, there’s a second alternative to observe it six months later. If a goal isn’t noticed within the first yr, it’d merely bleed over into subsequent yr. “Principally, every little thing that will get by way of the committee — advisable and authorized — will execute on the telescope,” Chen says, “so long as the telescope, you understand, works.”

If every little thing goes properly with the telescope’s launch, NASA plans to conduct a minimum of 5 and a half years of science with it, and hopefully up to 10 years. Finally, the observatory’s lifetime is dictated by its restricted gas reserves, that are wanted to assist reorient JWST in house. Each time that gas runs out, JWST’s mission will finish.

“the neighborhood has immense demand for the telescope. And I believe it’s an excellent factor.”

That finality continues to be fairly a methods off. First, JWST should launch and truly survive its journey by way of house. As soon as it reaches its remaining house 1 million miles from Earth, JWST will bear six months of commissioning — when scientists meticulously take a look at out the devices on board — earlier than the true science begins.

After which, after a interval of transformational science has handed, it’ll be time to submit one other spherical of proposals. Although Tremblay will probably be concerned with one JWST proposal for Cycle 1 as a collaborator somewhat than the principal investigator, he does plan to submit his concepts once more for Cycle 2. And he’ll perceive if it doesn’t get accepted.

“As an astronomer we get professionally used to rejections; I might wallpaper my hallway with rejections that I’ve obtained,” Tremblay says. “It’s only a reflection of the truth that the neighborhood has immense demand for the telescope. And I believe it’s an excellent factor.”

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