The First Five Months of JWST Imaging: Star Formation History, Exoplanet Carbon Dioxide, and Star-Formation
One of the most exciting periods in NASA’s history has been the past year. The JWST has been more successful than anyone could have imagined. Since 1989, when a telescope was first dreamed of, it has been amazing with beautiful images of star nurseries and the most distant galaxies ever seen. In the five months since the release of its first images, JWST has already started to upend theories of galaxy evolution, changed our understanding of the rate of star formation during the Universe’s infancy, and captured the first evidence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet.
Space Science Missions: From Ground-Based Astrophysics to Space-Based Planetary Science, and back to the Moon with the Artemis Space Mission
Finding the right time to leave was important not just for me, but also for NASA. I wanted to leave at a time when I was confident in the strength of the organization. An organization that undergoes change is vulnerable during a transition even if the change is beneficial in the long term. At a US government agency, many transitions tend to happen as a result of the election cycle. As a result, it was important for me to step down well ahead of any such time to avoid stacking major changeovers on top of each other. To prepare for such a transition, succession planning is key. We want to give the next generation of leaders time to figure it all out.
NASA is midway through launching almost a dozen Earth-science missions focused on understanding our life-enabling planet — including a billion-dollar satellite to track the global water cycle in unprecedented detail — and is starting work on the next-generation observatory of the Earth system. We have the world’s largest programme devoted to Earth science in space, and for several years now the US government has invested close to US$2 billion annually in Earth science at NASA; it is currently considering increasing that to at least $2.4 billion. The budget does not include NASA work on weather- and space-weather-forecasting systems. We are on our way back to the Moon with the launch of the Artemis programme and looking ahead to sending people to Mars. In a planetary defence test in September, scientists smashed the DART spaceship into an asteroid and diverted its path.
As NASA’s longest continually serving associate administrator of science, I have been part of incredible missions. Twice I have experienced seven minutes of terror — first when the robotic geologist Insight made its descent to the surface of Mars, then again when the Perseverance rover did the same — with both a success and failure speech in my bag. During the time when the team made the first controlled flight in an atmosphere outside of Earth, I held my breath.
What do early-career scientists need to learn about the Universe? Natalie Batalha and Natasha, the JWST Early Release Science programme, look at WASP-39b
As much as I have enjoyed this, every leader has weaknesses. Their weaknesses weigh more heavily on an organization and it is time for someone with new ideas to step in. So, when was it time for me to step aside?
I started by asking myself: was I still learning a lot? Was I still getting better? By ‘better’, I don’t mean approaching perfection or never making mistakes. Making the organization stronger and enabling breakthrough innovation are things that I think getting better means. I knew it was time for a change when I could no longer answer those two questions.
This week, Nature is highlighting a package of five papers analysing the James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST’s) observations of WASP-39b, a hot exoplanet with a Saturn-like mass, that Natalie Batalha and her daughter Natasha contributed to as part of the JWST Early Release Science programme.
Natalie: I want to support early-career researchers, because they’re the ones who will use the astronomy facilities in the future. They talk about diversity and other issues that are important to them. Natasha’s insights as an early-career scientist help me to be a better leader.
I began to think about what a scientist would be like if he were younger. When we were young, my mom asked all her kids to draw a picture of an astronaut. (Natasha has three siblings.) I drew this horribly stereotypical picture of a white man. She was horrified that I, the daughter of a female scientist and my dad, a Latinx scientist, fell victim to this stereotype. She made sure I had other role models, such as Sally Ride (the first US woman to fly in space).
The study of the beginnings of life in the Universe is what my undergraduate interest was. I am studying the atmosphere of Gliese 1214b, an exoplanet that is located 48 light years away from Earth. I started my graduate career studying Mars, but found myself skewing towards exoplanets. The fields of astrobiology and exoplanets were also merging, after Kepler found the first Earth-sized, habitable-zone exoplanet in 2014, meaning that it was at a distance from its star such that liquid water could exist on the surface. It was an exciting niche to work in.
The first seed planted in her mind, Johannes Kepler’s astronomical interest, was born in the window when she saw comet Hyakutake
Natalie: We also complement one another in our approach to science. She’s good at identifying bite-size pieces of a problem. I would spend hours categorizing colors without ever connecting two of them, which is whyNatasha would complete a large portion of the puzzle. When we were working on a research proposal, this happened. I started to dive into the problem’s complexities. We needed to stay focused to meet the deadline. She told me to keep it simple in order to get me back from the edge. Sometimes I need to get her to look at the bigger picture.
Natalie: I always say it’s in spite of me that she studies exoplanets. It’s a testament to the allure of this field. It’s an exciting moment in history that we’re learning of these other worlds. My theory is that the first seed was planted in her mind when she was five years old, and I was a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz. It was 1996 and comet Hyakutake was in the sky.
I drove the kids to see it. Natasha pointed out the comet in the window and asked, “What’s that?” She had to discover it for herself before we showed it to her. I perceived her wonder. Years later, I read biographies of the seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler. He attributed his own interest in science to a comet that his mother took him to see as a child. I love that connection. If you want your kid to be a scientist, you just have to arrange for a comet.
Natasha: As an adult, one privilege of having a parent in the field is that I feel comfortable speaking out about injustices. We give each other support.
Catalysing New Science in Open Collaboration: The Exoplanet Effect on Its Atmospheric Atmosphere
Natalie said that the new pieces of technology represent a challenge in our knowledge. Because of that, people feel pressure to be first to publish or even contribute. It can be dangerous for the field to have that tension. I looked to create a culture for JWST that catalyses new science while minimizing this type of fear. That is a good edge to use. For JWST, we established a structure for collaboration that let go of the need to be first. I didn’t perceive any clashes in these initial JWST projects. I’m proud of that, probably more than the science itself.
Natasha: Last year, I was developing a curriculum on open science through a NASA programme, and I’d been learning about the US National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) guidelines for assigning authorship in large collaborations. We had a lot of discussions about how to make an open collaboration work to be inclusive, and give people credit for their contributions. We had at least ten teams working on different models describing distinct properties of the exoplanet’s atmosphere. So, many people were comparing their codes back and forth until all of the models were in agreement, indicating that our scientific interpretation was robust. It’s difficult to create an authorship list when 300 people have contributed to a single result. My mom used some of the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was a really beautiful marriage of sorts in our work.