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

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

Able to see objects 100 times fainter than the Hubble Space Telescope, the JWST is a flagship; Enthusiasm for the craft has only skyrocketed since scientists recently started using the data it returns. Since leaving Earth on December 25, 2021, JWST has reported new details about distant exoplanets and information about the early days of the universe. As the telescope’s first year of research draws to a close, scientists are lining up for a chance to work with JWST, bidding on their bids to determine where the observatory’s next science goals lie next. But securing even a slice of observing time is easier said than done.

The process for determining the JWST’s future scientific goals is a little 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 professions in research cycles, a period that lasts about 12 months. Yet selection is not determined by drawing a name or first-come, first-served reservation, such as reserving a dinner table or a library computer. Instead, astronomers often have to submit detailed research proposals in order to be allocated observing time on a NASA mission.

In the case of JWST, 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 the operations of the observatory are carried out in such a way as to “maximize” the scientific performance of the telescope. López-Morales, who chairs the committee, says that while astronomers around 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% (one out of four) had been successfully selected for the last round of research.

“Some years you’re lucky and you get time, and some years you’re just unlucky and you have to wait,” López-Morales says.

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It’s also no small feat convincing NASA to direct the telescope’s sensitive instruments to a whole new location in the vast expanse. Scientists should be prepared to send the coordinates of the target, outline when and for how long they would like JWST to observe this object, as well as recommend which instruments will be used and how they would like the data collected.

After the painstaking process of creating such a detailed roadmap, proposals go through anonymous review, before finally being chosen and sent to telescope engineers to check whether or not these programs are feasible, explains López-Morales. , who followed the steps. se.

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

While the application process is fierce, shedding light on how scientists gain access to heavy tech also raises questions about how results are disseminated to the public. In August of this year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy implemented new guidelines that make taxpayer-funded research immediately available to the public. All government agencies, including NASA, must implement the policy by December 31, 2025.

[Related: The James Webb Space Telescope is about to beam us monster amounts of cosmic data]

To date, many space missions have exclusive research periods that typically range from six months to a year. Currently, only observers who have gone through the formal submission process and are approved for the scientific data in this instrument have exclusive access. Other missions with many targets or objects to observe, such as the TESS survey mission, have no ownership period. But some researchers note that the possibility of eliminating exclusive access periods entirely from future missions could cause deeper problems within the scientific community.

“I think in astronomy there’s this idea that the results should come out immediately, so anyone can use them,” says Stephanie T. Douglas, assistant professor of physics at Lafayette College who was not involved in the JWST. But the general public is not inclined to do the more in-depth and time-consuming scientific analysis that [researchers] want to do with these images. The ownership period, Douglas notes, protects the person who was originally selected to achieve those results and helps give them credit. If made public immediately, the scientists who originally came up with 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 postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, says she has seen many colleagues deal with the frustrations caused by these issues. For example, the pressure to be the first to publish often exacerbates inequalities in the astronomical community, she says.

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

That said, the lack of an ownership period encourages a poor work-life balance and disadvantages early-career scientists from backgrounds and communities rarely seen in science. The pressure to publish could also lead to botched early results as scientists rush to turn their complex analyzes into easily digestible and actionable results.

Overall, de los Reyes hopes early-career scientists will start thinking about creative ways to tackle these underlying issues, as the time allotted to groundbreaking space missions such as JWST ultimately influences research. carried out.
Regardless of who gets the dibs on the JWST ranking next, López-Morales says the telescope isn’t just a privilege for scientists, but really is for everyone. “We often hear that it’s a toy for scientists, and in reality it’s not a toy, it’s a tool,” she says. “It is a tool for humanity to understand our place in the universe, where we came from and where we are going.”

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