Major success for Edinburgh Astrophysicists with the James Webb Space Telescope

Astrophysicists in the School of Physics & Astronomy have secured a spectacular series of observational programmes on the NASA/ESA (European Space Agency) James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the long-awaited successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built and launched into space.

It is an orbiting infrared observatory that will complement and extend the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope, with longer wavelength coverage and greatly improved sensitivity.

The longer wavelengths will enable the JWST to look much closer to the beginning of time and to hunt for the as yet unobserved formation of the first galaxies, as well as to look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today.

Observation programmes

Following proposal submission in November 2020, and competitive anonymous peer review, the time allocations for the first year (Cycle 1) of observing on JWST were announced at the end of March 2021.

Professor Jim Dunlop (Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy) has secured the largest programme in the “Galaxies” science category (and one of the three largest JWST proposals overall), with 190 hours awarded for the PRIMER survey to explore galaxy formation and evolution in the early Universe. Professor Philip Best (Head of the Institute for Astronomy) has been awarded 40 hours for the first `blind’ H-alpha study of star formation within the first billion years of cosmic time. Dr Adam Carnall (Leverhulme Fellow) has been awarded 8 hours to undertake a detailed infrared spectroscopic investigation of the oldest known galaxy in the young Universe. These three new Edinburgh-led Cycle-1 General Observer programmes add to the Early Release Science (ERS) observing time already secured on JWST by Professor Beth Biller (as co- Principal Investigator (PI)) for the study of exoplanets.

Together, these awards account for ~40% of all the JWST time awarded to UK PIs in Cycle 1. This success is testimony to the research strengths of the School of Physics & Astronomy in cosmology and galaxy evolution. It also reaffirms the continued value of the deep and long-standing relationship between the University’s Institute for Astronomy (IfA) and STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC) at the Royal Observatory, with Prof Gillian Wright (UKATC Director) having co-led the development (as European PI) of the mid-infrared instrument, MIRI, on JWST (which will be used extensively in Professor Dunlop’s PRIMER infrared imaging survey).

Altering our understanding of the universe

Given the huge technical advances offered by the JWST (in size, low temperature, and instrumentation), these complementary programmes should revolutionise our understanding of cosmic history, and in particular our understanding of how and when the very first stars and galaxies formed in the wake of the Big Bang.

JWST has a planned launch in October 2021. Launch will be followed by around 6 months of deployment and testing (including unfolding of the huge gold-plated telescope mirror and unfurling of the even larger sunshield) as the telescope journeys to its observing location at L2 (the second Lagrangian point), in deep cold space, around 1 million miles from earth. Observing is therefore expected to commence in Spring 2022, approximately one year from now.

JWST Cycle 1 observers programme

Further details of the observing programmes allocated to School of Physics and Astronomy colleagues are as follows:

  • PRIMER survey to explore galaxy formation and evolution in the early Universe

Principal Investigator: Professor Jim Dunlop

Title: PRIMER: Public Release IMaging for Extragalactic Research

Programme: 1837

  • The first `blind’ H-alpha study of star formation within the first billion years of cosmic time

Principal Investigator: Professor Philip Best

Title: The first blind H-alpha narrow-band survey of star-formation at z>6

Programme: 2321

  • Infrared spectroscopic investigation of the oldest known galaxy in the young Universe

Principal Investigator: Dr Adam Carnall

Title: A massive quiescent galaxy at redshift 4.657

Programme: 2285

Full information on the above programmes, including abstracts and technical details on the observing allocations, as well as the full list of JWST Cycle-1 observing time allocations is available online:

Full list of JWST Cycle-1 observing time allocations