Chief scientist reveals what’s next

James Webb’s science operations have finally begun.

Amid the great fanfare surrounding the release of the space observatory’s stunning first full batch of images, it’s worth noting that we have only scratched the surface.

What we saw on Tuesday, July 12, was “just one sliver of data that James Webb is providing us,” explained Astrophysicist Knicole Colon during NASA’s live-streamed reveal event.

And now, we have a good idea of when the next James Webb data will be made public. According to Klaus Pontoppidan, chief JWST project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), it could be “in the next day or two.”

Here’s what’s next for James Webb

Firstly, it’s worth noting the speed at which James Webb collects data. During NASA’s reveal event, Pontoppidan said “the first year of science observations have already begun. We have already taken data for scientists who want time in the first year”.

The speed of James Webb’s data collection is also outlined by a comparison between the new $10 billion space observatory and its iconic predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. James Webb needed only 12.5 hours to capture its first image revealed to the public — of SMACS 0723. Hubble took a composite image of the same region of the sky, but it required 10 days of exposure.

Chief scientist says more James Webb data will be made public in 'a day or two'
James Webb’s famous image of SMACS 0723 took only 12.5 hours to capture. Source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

So it’s no surprise then that the next James Webb data will be revealed to the public very soon — especially as NASA scientists announced last month that the observatory had already started collecting science data. 

Referring to those first-year James Webb observations, Pontoppidan said “those data will be released to the principal investigators of those programs in the next day or two, and some of them are public. We’re just going full steam ahead.” While we can’t be certain whether that data will come in the form of images or scientific readings — as was the case with Webb’s spectrum observation of exoplanet WASP-96 b — it’s exciting to know we won’t have to wait long.

Sky-high expectations for the future of James Webb

During the first year of James Webb observations, scientists will still be learning to utilize the observatory. As Space.com points out, the James Webb team will have annual calls with scientists to submit requests for specific observations for the year — each year is referred to as a cycle.

During NASA’s Tuesday Webb presentation, Eric Smith, chief scientist at NASA’s astrophysics division and program scientist for JWST, said: “Everything we planned through Cycle 1, the astronomical community, it was bold, but it wasn’t bold enough. So I’m really excited for what people now plan to do for the second cycle, seeing just how capable the facility is.”

As NASA Administrator Bill Nelson pointed out during his presentation with President Biden, James Webb will help scientists provide answers to questions that have yet to be fathomed or formulated. The observatory is in a unique position to solve some of the universe’s most enduring mysteries by providing new data on dark matter, distant alien worlds, and some of the most distant, earliest reaches of the cosmos.

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