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The James Webb Space Telescope images have been a game changer for astronomers


The James Webb Space Telescope dazzled the world last week when its first images were released to the public. For astronomers, these pictures were just the beginning. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that each day has been a whirlwind of discovery.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Those few stunning pictures featured at press conferences were carefully handpicked to show off what this brand new $10 billion telescope could do. But the James Webb Space Telescope also made lots of other observations since it launched in December and unfolded in space, and scientists wanted all of it. Laura Kreidberg is an astronomer in Germany.

LAURA KREIDBERG: The initial unveiling was, of course, really exciting, but it wasn't until two days later that the real work started. That was when the first data became available.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Researchers pounced on that data and began to tear through everything else the telescope has seen. Jennifer Lotz is director of the International Gemini Observatory. She's part of a team looking at one particular field of galaxies.

JENNIFER LOTZ: We know these galaxies pretty well, but seeing these images with James Webb, it's like putting glasses on. Like, things we couldn't see before now are just crystal clear. And it's been overwhelming. It's been really overwhelming.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Overwhelming and joyful. Jacob Bean is an astronomer with the University of Chicago.

JACOB BEAN: It's like a birthday and Christmas and an anniversary and a graduation and Thanksgiving and Hanukkah all wrapped into one for us and happening just every day.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Astronomers rush to share each new revelation with their buddies. NPR caught up with Jessica Spake of Caltech right after she got off the phone with a friend. He'd just told her about his new analysis of the atmosphere of an exoplanet, which is a planet that orbits a faraway star.

JESSICA SPAKE: It's the most beautiful look into an exoplanet, honestly, that I've ever seen. I was in tears. I was crying down the phone.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Researchers generally keep their discoveries secret until they're published, which shouldn't take long. Scientific reports have started popping up online. One of the main goals of the James Webb Space Telescope was to find extremely distant galaxies - so distant that the light from them had to travel for almost the entire history of the universe to get to the telescope. Already astronomers think they've spotted some. Steven Finkelstein is an astronomer with the University of Texas at Austin.

STEVEN FINKELSTEIN: We're hoping, you know, within a few weeks we can tell the world what we found. But it does look really exciting.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Meanwhile, as this scientific scramble goes on, the telescope keeps making more observations. At this very moment, as this report airs, this powerful space observatory is staring at a mysterious planet out beyond our solar system.

BEAN: We're going to be staring at the planet for nearly two full days of telescope time. This is the longest single stare at a single object in the first year of JWST observations.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Jacob Bean, the astronomer in Chicago, referring to the telescope by its initials. He says, our solar system doesn't have anything like this planet. It's bigger than Earth but smaller than Neptune and wrapped in clouds or haze that hide its true nature. This telescope may be able to peer through all that. Bean has been waiting a long time for the observations happening today and tomorrow.

BEAN: I think at one point I'll probably look up at the sky and be like, JWST is doing its thing right now, and it's looking at my favorite planet. And that's a special moment.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: If all goes as planned, by this weekend he should know what the telescope is seeing. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.