Two STScI staff members sitting in the JWST mission operations center

Worth the Wait

In response to user feedback, the institute is rolling out enhancements and training to support researchers who will use NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

Although the launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was delayed until March 2021, it is well worth the wait! When Webb launches, it will allow us to write new chapters about our cosmic history. The observatory will seek the first galaxies, reveal how stars and planets form, and characterize planets around other stars as well as those in our own solar system.

In response to the new launch schedule, STScI delayed the call for proposals for Cycle 1 science observations with Webb until the turn of the year 2019/2020, with the submission deadline three months later. While this allows the scientific community more time to prepare for observing with Webb, the institute is not sitting by idly. We are busy at work, improving our ability to support Webb science.

Improving the Science Return of Webb

NGC 346 nebula
Infant stars that have just emerged from their natal cocoons of gas and dust in the NGC 346 nebula shine brightly in this Hubble Space Telescope near-infrared image. Webb’s sharp mid-infrared vision will uncover the thermal glow from thousands of even younger stars, still hidden within similar star-forming regions. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Nota (STScI/ESA).

The institute is making good use of the extra time to make sure the observatory is as efficient and capable as possible. While it is the worldwide astronomical community that will carry out the science of Webb, it is the responsibility of the institute to enable observers to produce the best possible science. The tools for crafting Webb’s observing programs and aiding scientists in their analysis of the data are essential ingredients, which means some of the extra time is being spent improving scientific software tools and documentation.

To help better understand the most pressing needs of the astronomical community, the institute conducted a user survey in spring 2018 after the launch delay was announced. The survey asked whether scientists had trouble with any aspect of proposal planning, and how the institute might improve in the future. The survey garnered more than 300 detailed responses, which helped prioritize the work the institute is doing leading up to launch.

In response to issues identified in the survey, as well as fixing other known issues, our teams revised and updated the suite of Webb proposal tools, including the Astronomer’s Proposal Tool and the Exposure Time Calculator, making them more intuitive, stable, and maintainable. The survey identified deficits in the documentation for scientists, leading to significant improvements to JDox, the online Webb documentation platform. We are also adding content to our library of video tutorials on the JWST Observer YouTube channel. With these improvements, we hope that scientists will be better prepared to observe with Webb by the new Cycle 1 proposal deadline. 

Practice, Practice, Practice

Both during the initial checkout while Webb travels a million miles to L2, and during science operations, continuous communications with the mission operations center at the institute will be essential. In September, our flight operations team successfully completed two critical communications rehearsals. Many more rehearsals of various aspects of Webb operations are planned.

The first rehearsal demonstrated that, from the moment Webb launches through the first six hours of flight, complex exchanges could be accomplished among five service providers around the world, which will alternately convey command and telemetry communications. The second rehearsal showed that our mission operations center could successfully command the telescope. The fact that these exercises were carried out flawlessly is a testament to the hard work of the flight operations team, as well as teams across the country and around the world.

Leveraging the Existing Fleet of Observatories

The delay in the launch of Webb means that other observatories have more time to prepare the astronomical community for Webb science. For example, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched in April 2018, is now returning new detections of exoplanets around the brightest stars. Planets detected by TESS are expected to be prime targets for Webb.

James Webb and Hubble space telescopes artistic comparisonOther major observatories are reaching maturity, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), and their discoveries will help to drive the science of Webb. When considering targets, scientists need to check what Webb is already scheduled to observe as part of both the Director’s Discretionary Early Release Science (DD-ERS) programs and the Guaranteed Time Observation (GTO) programs. A new feature in the data discovery portal within the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) makes this process very simple.

MAST not only allows users to see if a target is already part of planned Webb observations, it also crosschecks against observations already made by other missions within MAST. This means that researchers will be able to efficiently use data from a wide range of observatories to help plan science with Webb.

Webb will have an increased overlap with future observatories, including NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the European Space Agency’s Euclid, PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO), and CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite (CHEOPS) observatories, as well as the ground-based, extremely large telescopes, such as the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), the European Southern Observatory’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

Our work is only possible with the support of our partners: NASA Headquarters, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. It has been a long journey, but the institute is ready to fully support the amazing science of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.