Split infrared and visible image of the Andromeda galaxy

Preparation and Anticipation

We are preparing for the science and mission operations of the James Webb Space Telescope.

People around a conference room table participate in a workshop
Download the ‘Workshop in a Box’Find the compendium of training and support materials for personal use or to organize your own JWST proposal planning workshops: stsci.edu/jwst/science-planning/proposal-training

It was 2:00 a.m. and the global Ground Systems team for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was gathered at STScI for an important, congressionally mandated rehearsal, about to perform one of the time-critical phases of the telescope’s commissioning—when the fire alarm went off.

Was it a real fire or a purposeful issue introduced by the rehearsal anomalies team? Either way, the staff members working in the Mission Operations Center knew the rehearsal had to go on and followed the procedures: Command control was seamlessly transferred to the backup Mission Operations Center at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where the time-critical fuel burn was performed nearly at the originally scheduled time.

Eventually, the team members learned the alarm was in fact from the rehearsal anomalies team, and that they had performed well during a practice for the myriad anomalies that could crop up, not from Webb itself, not from the environment around the telescope as it makes it way to its orbit beyond the Moon, but from the environment around us. 

As the launch of Webb draws closer, the frequency of rehearsals will increase. Congressionally mandated rehearsals are held quarterly, with additional government oversight rehearsals monthly. The team performs dry runs for each of these, trying to cover as much of the unexpected as possible to ensure they are trained to respond to events they cannot anticipate.

Training the Trainers

Split infrared and visible image of the Andromeda galaxy
By detecting infrared light with telescopes, scientists are able to observe the structure of dust in galaxies that glows in infrared light. The top image was captured by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which ended its mission in January 2020 after more than 16 years in the sky. Webb will observe infrared light like Spitzer, with Hubble’s resolution (bottom image), providing more detail than ever before.

Beyond these crucial trainings, the Webb team at the institute is also working to prepare the astronomy community to do science with Webb. Scientists from all over the world will use Webb to study foundational questions in astrophysics, on topics from the first galaxies to the atmospheres of planets around other stars.

Realizing that not everyone who will want to work with Webb data would be able to come to the institute for a workshop, our team developed a “train the trainer” master class. In November, 28 participants arrived at the institute for four-and-a-half days of in-depth training on proposal planning, including user tools, instrument modes, example science cases, and documentation.

Graduates of the master class are now leading proposal-preparation training activities in their communities. In addition, after the master class, a “Workshop in a Box” package was made available for scientists to self-instruct and share with colleagues as they wish.

All this preparation leads up to the Cycle 1 deadline for scientists to submit science proposals to use Webb. Up to 6,000 hours of Webb’s time will be available for observing programs using the full suite of the telescope’s instrumentation. Scientists will also have an opportunity to propose for archival analysis of data, theoretical investigations, and the development of software tools. Visit jwst.stsci.edu for the most up-to-date information.

With Webb scheduled to launch in 2021, the countdown is on to prepare to make the best use of its powerful imaging and spectroscopic tools, and the new windows they will open to the universe. Teams at STScI are hard at work assisting the astronomy community as they make ready for the Webb era. 

Mark Your Calendar

Community workshops, conferences, and science discussions throughout 2020 will help prepare scientists to use the James Webb Space Telescope. Find an up-to-date list of upcoming opportunities: stsci.edu/jwst/news-events/events.


Seeing the Past

Telescopes with infrared detectors allows us to see the ancient light of the first galaxies, which has been redshifted over space and time.

What is cosmological redshift
One of the most exciting aspects of Webb science will be using the telescope to see back through cosmic time to study the development of the universe’s first galaxies. Webb will detect light much further into the infrared than Hubble, and with sharper resolution than NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. This means Webb can detect the longer infrared wavelengths of light, stretched over time by the universe’s expansion, in more detail than we’ve ever seen before. View the full infographic.