A fierce competition will decide James Webb Space Telescope’s next views of the cosmos

A fierce competition will decide James Webb Space Telescope’s next views of the cosmos

It’s been almost a year since the James Webb Space Telescope was launched into space, and NASA’s most powerful far-flung traveler has already given us many new glimpses of our ever-captivating universe.

Able to see objects 100 times fainter than the Hubble Space Telescope, JWST is a hot commodity; excitement over the craft has only skyrocketed since scientists recently began utilizing the data it sends back. Since leaving Earth on December 25, 2021, JWST has reported novel details about faraway exoplanets and insights about the earliest days of the universe. As the telescope’s first year of research comes to an end, scientists are lining up for a chance to work with JWST, offering up their bids to determine where the observatory’s next science goals will lie next. But securing even a slice of observing time is easier said than done. 

The process to determine JWST’s upcoming science targets is a bit more technical than you might imagine, says Mercedes López-Morales, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Research projects are scheduled for mission crafts in research cycles, a period that lasts about 12 months. Yet selection isn’t determined by random name drawing or by first-come first-serve reservation, like booking a dinner table or library computer. Instead, astronomers often have to submit detailed research proposals in order to be awarded observation time on a NASA mission. 

In JWST’s case, the decision is made by the JWST Users Committee, a group of twelve  scientists, whose role was established by the Space Telescope Science Institute and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The committee’s job is to ensure that observatory operations proceed in a manner meant to “maximize” the telescope’s scientific performance. López-Morales, who serves as the chair of the committee, says while astronomers from all over the world are eligible to submit a case for observations they’d like the telescope to make, the process is so highly competitive that only about 25 percent (one in four proposals) had been successfully selected for the last research cycle. 

“Some years you get lucky and you get time, and some years, you just don’t get lucky and you have to wait,” López-Morales says. 

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It’s also no easy feat to convince NASA to turn the telescope’s sensitive instruments toward a brand new location in the vast expanse. Scientists have to be prepared to send in target coordinates, emphasize when and for how long they’d like JWST to observe that object, as well as recommend what instruments will be used and how they’d like the data to be collected.

After the painstaking process of creating such a detailed roadmap, the proposals undergo anonymous review, before eventually being chosen and sent off to telescope engineers to check to see if those programs are feasible or not, says López-Morales, who has gone through the steps herself. 

López-Morales was part of a team that recently used JWST data to reveal new details about the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-39 b, a Saturn-sized planet about 700 light-years away from Earth. Her team and their collaborators were initially awarded about 270 hours (just under 12 days) of telescope time to complete all of their observations for the study, she says. JWST’s current science cycle started on July 10, 2022 and will end June 30, 2023. The proposal deadline for JWST’s next cycle is January 27, 2023, which will ultimately run from July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024.

Though the application process is fierce, shedding light on how scientists are granted access to heavy-duty technology also brings up questions about how findings are distributed to the public. In August of this year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy installed new guidance that makes research funded by taxpayers immediately accessible to the public. All government agencies—including NASA—will be expected to implement the policy no later than December 31, 2025. 

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To date, many space missions have proprietary research periods that typically range from six months to a year. At this time, only observers who have gone through the formal proposal process and are approved for that instrument’s science data have exclusive access to it. Other missions with many targets or objects to observe, like the survey mission TESS, have no proprietary period at all. But some researchers note that the possibility of completely eliminating exclusive access periods from future missions could cause deeper issues inside the scientific community.  

“I think in astronomy there’s this idea that the results should come out immediately, so that anyone could use it,” says Stephanie T. Douglas, an assistant professor of physics at Lafayette College who has not been involved with JWST. But the general public isn’t inclined to do the deeper, time-intensive “science analysis that [researchers] want to do with these images.” The proprietary period, Douglas notes, protects the person who was originally selected to get those results and helps give them credit. If released to the public immediately, the scientists who initially proposed the analysis and collected the data will have to rush to use it before other research groups get a chance, she says. 

JWST is not a toy, it’s a tool.

— Mercedes López-Morales, astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Mia de los Reyes, an observational astronomer and a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University, says she’s seen many colleagues deal with the frustrations these issues cause. For instance, the pressure to be first to publish often exacerbates inequity in the astronomy community, she says. 

“It’s not that astronomers don’t want the public to have access to data,” de los Reyes says. “I think astronomers, on the contrary, feel very strongly that open-access research is good.” 

That said, the lack of a proprietary period incentivizes a poor work-life balance and puts early-career scientists from backgrounds and communities not often seen in science at a disadvantage. The pressure to publish could also lead to slapdash first results as scientists rush to turn their complex analyses into easily digestible, actionable results. 

Overall, de los Reyes hopes that early-career scientists will start thinking of creative ways to combat these underlying issues, as who is alloted time on ground-breaking space missions like JWST ultimately influences what research is done.   
Regardless of who gets dibs on JWST’s leaderboard next, López-Morales says that the telescope isn’t just a privilege for scientists, but is truly meant for everyone. “You often hear that this is a toy for scientists, and in reality it’s not a toy, it’s a tool,” she says. “It’s a tool for humankind to understand our place in the universe and where we came from, and where we are going.”

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