Untangling the Deep: The James Webb Telescope Peers Beyond, Seeking Answers and Origins of Distant Galaxies, Worlds

The Hubble Space Telescope brought the world renowned, groundbreaking images of far-off cosmic objects through ultraviolet and visible light astronomy.

Now, powered by infrared astronomy, the James Webb Space Telescope will peer further—finding objects too early, too distant, or too faint for Hubble’s capabilities. But both missions will work together to help us better understand this universe. 

Webb was conceptualized in 1999 as a way to study the very first stars and galaxy formations in our universe. Another vital part of the mission is the detailed study of atmospheric conditions of exoplanets, or planets that orbit distant stars. For years, the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) has worked to develop a catalog of far-off planets to confirm the habitability of these worlds and search for biosignatures. 

Dr. Knicole D. Colón, Webb’s deputy project scientist for exoplanet science since 2019, first started working with NASA on the Kepler mission. Later she joined the Goddard Space Flight Center in 2017. She’s dedicated years of research to discovering and characterizing exoplanets, and is also the director of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) Science Support Center. 

In an interview with States of Life, Colón outlined her role on Webb and what’s to come for this groundbreaking mission, while offering insights into the strange beauty of distant worlds she’s spent years studying. 

“Webb helps us to explore our universe in new ways, to put our human lives into perspective and help us understand our place in the universe — that is of great value,” Colón said.

Pre-launch, Colón supported data analysis while documenting Webb’s capabilities to study exoplanets. Since Webb’s launch in December 2021, she’s served as one of the NASA representatives at the mission operations center in Baltimore, Maryland.

Along with the rest of the mission team, she’s helped test telescope’s four on-board science instruments Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and the Fine Guidance Sensor/Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS). 

Don’t let those painfully bland instrument names fool you. Thanks to their cutting-edge capabilities, and with the guidance and analysis of Colón and many others, Webb searches for signatures of molecules like water, carbon dioxide, and methane in the atmospheres of exoplanets. Through studying their atmospheres, the team will learn more about how the atmospheres—and the exoplanets–formed and evolved over millions of years, Colón said.

“We are also looking to determine the structure of exoplanet atmospheres, to see how the atmosphere temperature changes higher up in the atmosphere versus lower down, for example,” Colón said. “That is so exciting, to get to peer back to the very early universe, farther than we’ve ever seen before. I am just excited by the power of Webb, specifically that it is able to provide us with incredibly detailed images and data of so many types of objects – from Solar System planets, to exoplanets in our galaxy, to regions where new stars are forming, to other distant galaxies, and [beyond]. With every data set from Webb, we are seeing and learning new things about the universe.” 

Studying exoplanets and their related celestial neighbors helps scientists determine the full diversity of planetary systems, especially to see if there are any similar solar systems to ours that may support life. Evaluating the origin of all planet types helps push understanding forward related to ways planets formed around stars, which are presumably some of the first objects that came to be in our universe. 

Through her work, Colón has identified many unique and bizarre exoplanets. Here is her hand-picked list of some of the most interesting objects observed in her studies: 

HD 80606 bThis is a giant Jupiter-size planet, with a highly eccentric orbit. It takes 111 days to orbit around its star. In its journey, it passes very close to its star and gets heated up rapidly, then it travels far away and gets a lot colder, before it comes back in and undergoes rapid heating again. This will be studied by a team I’m part of, in Webb’s first year of science! 

KELT-11 bThis is a giant, puffy planet, with the density of Styrofoam! I am curious as to how it retains its atmosphere and how it even formed in the first place. I would love to study this with Webb in the future. 

K2-22 bThis is a small, rocky planet that is actually disintegrating! It orbits so close to its star that the planet is being slowly ripped apart, and there are trails of rocky material (like a comet) in orbit around the star. I would also love to study this with Webb, to measure the composition of the rocky material of this planet. 


States of Life: If you could travel anywhere in the universe, where would you go? 

Colón: “I would love to travel to any exoplanet that orbits around two stars (like Kepler-16 b). Imagine that if you’re on that planet, it would be just like Tatooine, with two stars in the sky! That would be so fun to witness that, and see how awesome it is for science fiction to become reality.” 

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