JWST Will Finally Hunt For Alien Moons—And Much More

Friday, March 15, 2024
by Jonathan O'Callaghan

Last week the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Maryland announced which programs it had picked to win some of the telescope’s precious time in its third year of science observations. Beginning this July and officially called Cycle 3, JWST’s latest solicitation received a record-breaking 1,931 proposals—the most ever for any space telescope in history.

Much of JWST’s focus in Cycle 3 will, as expected, be on studies of galaxies. Of the approximately 5,500 hours of observing time awarded in Cycle 3, about a third went to galaxies, with exoplanets close behind and other fields of astronomy, such as studies of objects in our solar system, taking the rest of the time. Already JWST has upended our knowledge of the earliest galaxies in the universe; it has broken the record again and again for the most distant one known—a record that at present stands at just 320 million years after the big bang 13.8 billion years ago.

Rohan Naidu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will be studying some of the particularly large and red galaxies that have surprisingly popped up in JWST’s observations of the first billion or so years post–big bang. Called “little red dots,” they appear much brighter and more massive than theorists have expected galaxies at this epoch to be. “The position that I and my collaborators have argued for is that there is that there’s hidden phases of black hole growth that we didn’t really see until now,” Naidu says. His program will seek to settle the debate about little red dots once and for all. Not all of Naidu’s proposals to use the telescope were as successful, though, and many other astronomers missed out entirely. “It’s just so brutal,” he says. “There’s so many excellent proposals that don’t go through.”

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