A Moment in the History of Space Science: coverage at ESOF2022 and my thoughts now.

On July 12th, 2022, NASA (The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration) released the first full-colour images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The very next day the EuroScience Open Forum ran sessions at ESOF2022 to enable further explanation of the images, and to provide an understanding of the history of the JWST including the many different challenges and difficulties that had been successfully overcome. Sessions continued in Leiden and on-line throughout the week to enable questions, discussions, and debate amongst a wide range of scientists, politicians, and the public. Experts including astronomers, engineers, and other scientists were on hand to provide explanations of the science and the significance.

The excitement and enthusiasm were palpable. The speakers and discussions were inspirational to younger researchers, budding astronomers and more generally of course.

It was fitting to hold these sessions during ESOF2022 because in addition to the major role of NASA the success of this significant breakthrough was also a result of extensive international collaboration in which the ESA (European Space Agency) had a major involvement. *

I learned a lot about space science at ESOF2022 and I also realised how much I didn’t know. My curiosity was sparked, and this motivated me subsequently to go and find out more from other sources as well.

I would like to share some of my learning with you:

A few key points

The JWST enables us to look further back in time than ever before.

The reason why the JWST has been likened to a time-machine that lets us see into the past is that when looking at very distant objects we see them as they were in the past because the light takes time to reach us.

Infra-red (IR) astronomy is the key ‘game-changer’ to enable this breakthrough.

We were previously unable to see earlier galaxies and further back because they were invisible to us. Light that was emitted more than 13.5 billion years ago would be ‘stretched out’ finally arriving here as infra-red light.

Some of the science, engineering, and technological development involved

The JWST team had to put this large IR telescope into space because IR light is absorbed by water and our atmosphere is full of water.

An IR telescope needs to be cold; it is very sensitive to tiny amounts of heat. Therefore, the telescope needed to be a long distance from the Earth. However, it would then be in direct ‘line of fire’ of the Sun which is a massive source of heat.

A major challenge was that something had to be invented that would keep the telescope cold and ‘never let it see the Sun’. The solution was the invention of a unique mirror (6.5 meters in diameter) and ‘a sunshield the size of a tennis court’. This mirror had to be built on the ground to test that it would work. Both the mirror and sunshade needed to be folded up to be transported and to subsequently be unfolded far away in outer space.

Programme and project management

From my own experience in projects and consultancy (albeit not on this scale and in different areas) I am sure there will have been many challenges and learning to be taken forward from this large international, collaborative, inter-disciplinary programme. Important aspects would have included teamwork, leadership, planning and monitoring not to mention the politics and funding challenges that needed to be managed along the way.

I’d like to highlight the following points that immediately strike me regarding JWST:

1. The need for persistence: The story behind this programme sends a message of the power of persistence which led to ultimate success despite many challenges and setbacks on the way.

2. The importance of risk management. Attention to detail is key, for example what might seem like the smallest human error can affect the success of the whole project.

I also think this success story brings a message of hope to other individuals and groups when facing setbacks; emphasising the immense value of taking the learning forward when things go wrong or not exactly to plan.

Concluding remarks:

The JWST programme is great example of what can be done in science with collaboration, persistence, and support.

Big collaborative projects can work well and achieve enormous advances.

The JWST success sparks curiosity and prompts other questions to explore for example questions regarding the birth of stars, and even whether there is Life beyond Earth…

The world is watching this space for further discoveries to come (pun intended 😉).

Finally, it is very exciting because we are going to discover and see things we have never seen before!

by Dr Julie Charlesworth 27/01/23


*The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) led JWST’s design and development and partnered with two main agencies: the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Post Script. Here I share my perspective of this ‘out of this world’ news. I’ll soon be back in more familiar territory – Life Sciences and related 🧬, clinical and health research which I find equally exciting. However, as the new year begins it seems particularly timely to have a quick look back and even beyond 😊 🚀.


At the EuroScience Open Forum in 2022 (ESOF2022)