Science’s 2022 Breakthrough of the Year: NASA’s Stellar New James Webb Space Telescope

NASA’s Webb Space Telescope

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Northrup Grumman

After numerous setbacks, 20 years of development, a hefty $10 billion dollar price tag, and a perilous 1-million-mile (1.5-million-kilometer) journey into space, the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) finally opened its golden, infrared eye and gave us a glimpse of our universe – and its unfathomable past – in stunning, unprecedented detail. To honor this feat, the journal Science has named JWST’s flight as its 2022 breakthrough of the year.

Unhindered by the Earth’s atmosphere, space telescopes provide an unspoiled view of our surrounding universe. However, unlike its predecessor, the Hubble Space telescope, JWST can capture infrared light, including light emitted from the very first stars and galaxies to wink into existence. Within days of coming online in late June 2022, researchers began discovering thousands of new galaxies more distant and ancient than any previously documented – some perhaps more than 150 million years older than the oldest identified by Hubble. What’s more, the telescopes is capable of collecting enough light from astronomical objects – ranging from birthing stars to exoplanets – to reveal what they are made of and how they are moving through space. This data has already begun to reveal the atmospheric composition of planets hundreds of light-years from Earth in great detail, offering hints as to their ability to potentially support life as we know it.

We don’t yet know what the James Webb Space Telescope will uncover. Will we get answers? Will we have more questions? One thing’s certain: The story of us is a never-ending quest for knowledge. As Carl Sagan said: “We can’t help it.” Credit: NASA

Runners-up for the Breakthrough of the Year include the discovery of a massive microbe nearly 5,000 times bigger than many other bacterial cells; the development of a perennial rice variety; new insights into how the Black Death altered the genes of Europeans; an ancient ecosystem reconstructed from 2-million-year-old environmental DNA preserved in Greenland permafrost; advancements in an RSV vaccine; NASA’s successful DART satellite mission; the passing of landmark climate law; rapid development of creative AI; and the identification of the virus that may cause multiple sclerosis.

Now that the Science news and editorial staff have selected the 2022 Breakthrough, a committee of approximately ten individuals – convened by the Science journals’ editor-in-chief, Holden Thorpe – will select up to three winners whose work best exemplifies the related research field to receive the first inaugural Bhaumik Breakthrough of the Year Award. The individual winner or winners will be announced before the end of March.

Webb is the next great space science observatory following Hubble, designed to answer outstanding questions about the Universe and to make breakthrough discoveries in all fields of astronomy. Webb will see farther into our origins – from the formation of stars and planets, to the birth of the first galaxies in the early Universe. Webb is an international partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

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