♪ ♪ NARRATOR: The James Webb Space Telescope is on a mission to unlock the secrets of the cosmos.
AARON EVANS: Think about it as a telescope that enables us to see the hidden universe.
NARRATOR: Searching for the chemical building blocks of life beyond Earth.
HEIDI HAMMEL: Is there life on an Earth-like planet around a sun-like star?
Is there an Earth 2.0 out there?
NARRATOR: Hunting for clues to unravel the mystery of black holes.
LEE ARMUS: Where do they start growing?
How bright do they get?
NARRATOR: And probing deeper into our cosmic history than ever before.
AMBER STRAUGHN: We are reaching back to what we think is the first epoch of galaxies.
And we've only just started.
That's the craziest thing, right?
NARRATOR: "New Eye on the Universe," right now, on "NOVA."
♪ ♪ STRAUGHN: This telescope was designed to answer some of the biggest questions in astronomy today.
Everything from detecting the very first galaxies that were born after the Big Bang... ...to looking at objects within our own solar system, and everything in space and time in between.
MATT MOUNTAIN: We're trying to tell the whole human story, from the beginning of the Big Bang right up to, did life emerge on another Earth-like planet around another star like our sun?
And that's a massive story.
♪ ♪ But I'm also, you know, got my ears pricked up for, what are we going to learn that we didn't even know we were supposed to be looking for?
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: The James Webb Space Telescope, also known as JWST, is the largest, most complex space telescope ever built.
Plagued with mishaps and cost overruns, it was decades in the making.
HAKEEM OLUSEYI: We got to the point where we started thinking, is this thing ever going to fly?
Is it too complicated?
NARRATOR: It was finally launched on December 25, 2021.
ANNOUNCER: This will be humanity's last view of the James Webb Space Telescope as it moves to its workplace about a million miles away from Earth.
HAMMEL: JWST is an example of what people can do on a large scale.
20,000 people around the world contributed to making this telescope exist.
NARRATOR: Now researchers are taking their new telescope on a test drive.
I mean, methane's always been a mystery, right?
TIFFANY KATARIA: This is, like, our new souped-up convertible that we want to take out for many spins, multiple spins.
(laughs) And, and really test its limits.
Just look at that... ARMUS: There's a period where you have to feel it out.
You've got to learn how to use it.
And that's what we're doing.
We had some idea of what we might, uh, be going to see in this galaxy.
JANE RIGBY: So we're really trying to get up to speed so that we're not just driving the car, but we're really learning, how do you take the corners the best?
How do we, how do we optimize what we're doing here?
(exclaiming) NARRATOR: This is a story of the ups... (all toasting) NARRATOR: ...and downs... Uh-oh, I think I found an error.
NARRATOR: ...of exploring the cosmos with a brand-new telescope... We're kind of the guinea pigs, uh, to, to show how this all works.
It took me a while to figure it out... NARRATOR: ...pushing it to its limits.
So this is on the surface.
NARRATOR: In its very first chapter of exploration, researchers are finding out what their "New Eye on the Universe" can reveal.
On July 12, 2022, the world finally got a look at JWST's first images.
OLUSEYI: I was flabbergasted, right?
It was better than I could have imagined.
I knew they were going to be good, but I didn't think they were going to be that good.
The thing that struck me was the amount of detail we were seeing in these images.
MARTHA BOYER: It's sort of like putting glasses on for the first time, you know?
Everything is just, like, crystal-clear, and there's just so much to see.
LEE FEINBERG: I guess my reaction was just a total sense of wonderment.
You know, it's, like, sort of that feeling when you were a kid and you look up at the night sky, and you just look out into the universe and you see all these stars and you wonder, like, how big is the universe and when did it all start?
I felt that looking at those images.
I just felt that sense of wonderment.
NARRATOR: As the first batches of data and images pour in, scientists are hunting for new clues to some of our most profound questions.
STRAUGHN: I study galaxies in my own research.
And so I am really excited to see what that first epoch of galaxies to form after the Big Bang, to see what those galaxies are like.
But if I'm being honest, I think the most important question we have in astronomy, or maybe even as a species is, is there life out there?
♪ ♪ NÉSTOR ESPINOZA: "Are we alone?"
is definitely one of the key questions that I would love to answer.
THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: For me, that is such an Earth-shattering idea that... That by itself would be worth the entire telescope.
KATARIA: There are over 5,000 exoplanets that have been discovered so far.
The actual number changes every day, so even I can't keep track.
NARRATOR: Exoplanets are alien worlds that exist beyond our solar system.
KATARIA: But it really does blow the mind when you think about Carl Sagan saying there were billions of galaxies.
And so that begs the question, you know, are there trillions of exoplanets in the universe?
I think there are.
NARRATOR: To put this in perspective, our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains at least 100 billion stars, and astronomers estimate it may be home to thousands of solar systems with planets a lot like our own.
The big question is, do any of them contain life?
DAVID SING: The odds that one of these planets has the ingredients for life are very high.
OLUSEYI: Are we alone in the universe, right?
All common sense of looking at how biology, chemistry, geology, and physics work would say, no, we're not alone.
NARRATOR: Over the last few decades, our most powerful telescopes have been on the hunt for life as we know it.
But just finding these distant worlds is a monumental task.
As we're looking at planets within our galaxy, but outside of the solar system, the first thing we need to remember is, they're really, really small.
NARRATOR: They're also light-years away and hidden by the glare of the star they orbit.
CHRISTINE CHEN: You can imagine, it's really hard to find something faint in the glare of that really bright star.
KATARIA: I've often heard detecting exoplanets is like looking for a firefly in front of a lighthouse.
But I might argue that it's actually more challenging.
ANTONELLA NOTA: So astronomers have been very creative and they have come up with techniques that basically look at the planet when they pass in front of the star.
ESPINOZA: So we're just waiting patiently, looking at the stars, such that you see a little dimming in the light, because the planet blocks a little bit of that light.
NARRATOR: The tiniest dip in light can reveal the presence of a planet, and as starlight passes through the planet's atmosphere, JWST's instruments search for chemical clues to what this alien world is made of.
There are two types of science instruments in general, cameras that produce images and spectroscopes that produce spectra-- rainbows.
And the public is always fascinated and awed by the images that come.
And the images hold a wealth of scientific data.
But arguably, the workhorse of scientific instruments is the spectroscope.
NARRATOR: To demonstrate what a spectroscope reveals, Matthew Diaz built a tabletop version while he was a JWST intern.
He uses a flashlight to simulate the light of a celestial object.
The light passes through a lens, a lot like the lens of an old-fashioned camera.
And it focuses all the light to one point.
There's this little slit here that allows the light to pass through.
NARRATOR: Next, the light passes through another lens, and then through a prism.
DIAZ: What the prism's doing is, it's splitting the light into colors.
And that is how you get your spectrum.
STEFANIE MILAM: It's the same as if you see a rainbow: the light is actually being broken apart in such a way that you can see distinct colors.
NARRATOR: And this spectrum of light is chock full of information.
Each molecule has their own fingerprint, just like you have a fingerprint, like I have a fingerprint, that's distinguishable.
So we're looking for these key fingerprints of different molecules.
NARRATOR: What distinguishes one spectrum from another are gaps where atoms and molecules reveal their identities by absorbing light.
Molecules in space-- on stars, in planets-- can absorb certain colors of light.
They just take that light out of the rainbow.
So you look for the pattern of lines to say, "Ah, that's the barcode of calcium.
That's the barcode of sodium."
They're, they're fingerprints, they're like little signs with a little placard saying, "Hello, I'm hydrogen."
"Hi, I'm oxygen."
NARRATOR: JWST'S spectroscopes are specially designed to detect these fingerprints in the infrared part of the spectrum.
So this is where we have signatures of key molecules that we want to look at in space.
Like water, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane.
These are really key ingredients essential for a habitable world, or, you know, what we would associate with life.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Exoplanet researchers start their search for these key ingredients by exploring the atmosphere of a gas giant 700 light-years away.
WASP-39 b is bigger than Jupiter and vastly bigger than Earth.
SING: It's larger than Jupiter, but it's still a lot less dense than Jupiter.
NARRATOR: That makes its atmosphere bigger, puffier, and easier to detect.
KEVIN STEVENSON: We had studied WASP-39 with the Hubble Space Telescope.
We had detected water vapor in its atmosphere already.
And so we wanted to study this planet at new wavelengths, using new instruments with a new telescope to see if we could get a bigger, broader picture of the planet.
NARRATOR: Their goal: to find out if Webb's spectroscopes can detect a molecule that's never been detected in an exoplanet's atmosphere; one that is critical for life as we know it-- CO2, carbon dioxide.
Here on Earth, it can be produced by geological processes and it's a crucial fuel for plant life.
When the results finally come in... WOMAN: So that big peak right there, that's all carbon dioxide?
WOMAN 2: Yes.
WOMAN 1: Yeah, that's beautiful.
We saw this giant, giant carbon dioxide feature that just popped out right away in the data.
This carbon dioxide detection is just amazing.
We all had high fives.
It was a big moment, like, wow, we can look at the carbon chemistry of these planets in detail.
And it just brought a big smile to my face.
I was, like, "Yes, we did it!"
There are definitely some other bumps in there, right?
That we don't quite... NARRATOR: The spectrum also revealed a surprise: the first detection of sulfur dioxide on a planet outside our solar system.
Sulfur dioxide is found in Earth's ozone layer, a crucial part of our atmosphere that shields us from the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation.
Finding these molecules in the atmosphere of WASP-39 b is a landmark discovery.
HAMMEL: What we've learned with JWST so far is that the data it's providing are exquisite for exoplanet atmospheres, and that has everybody salivating for more: more spectra, more transits.
NARRATOR: The next big question, can JWST detect an atmosphere on a much smaller, rocky, Earth-size planet?
One thing's for sure: it won't be easy.
SING: We've never even detected an atmosphere around a rocky planet before.
So now, with JWST, we have our very, very first chance to do that on a very select few planets.
NARRATOR: In a few months, they'll get their first look at a rocky world and see if they can detect an atmosphere.
Being able to perhaps make the first detections of an atmosphere on planets as small as the Earth is something that you only have dreamed of so far.
NARRATOR: JWST is also looking for the chemical building blocks of life much closer to home, in our cosmic backyard.
NAOMI ROWE-GURNEY: The one big question I want this telescope to answer is if there is life in our own solar system.
If we found it in our own solar system, it would really hit home that it's not so rare that life can happen.
JONATHAN LUNINE: There are three places in our solar system, beyond the Earth and beyond Mars, which are good candidates to go look for life, and those are Europa, around Jupiter, and the moons of Saturn, Enceladus and Titan.
ROWE-GURNEY: Titan is a really exciting moon because it has an atmosphere and rivers and streams and lakes and oceans.
But instead of being made of water, like they are on Earth, they're made of methane, like, liquid methane.
And so it has, like, a water cycle, like we have on Earth, but it's a methane cycle.
And that's really exciting for scientists, because if we find life on Titan, it's not going to be life like it is on Earth.
It's going to be totally different life.
So that's a really exciting thing to be looking for.
But also, how do you look for life that you don't understand?
So it's also a massive challenge.
LUNINE: So the question comes up, can life evolve from chemistry in a liquid medium that's not water, that doesn't have the polar properties of water?
And the answer is, we don't know.
NARRATOR: Researchers are also on the hunt for the ingredients for life as we know it on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, and Europa, a moon of Jupiter.
LUNINE: Those are what are called ocean worlds, which means that they have liquid water in their interiors.
GERONIMO VILLANUEVA: Imagine that there is a big body of water below the surface, protected from the environment... ROWE-GURNEY: Where there could be this subsurface ocean, where there could be hydrothermal vents, just like the ones that we have on Earth, which have life, like plants and animals.
VILLANUEVA: ...full of organics, maybe some energy, internal energy, heat energy, and you have the soup of life.
We don't know what could be happening there, but it's definitely a place that has all the right conditions for us to explore.
LUNINE: Some biochemists have suggested that it's in environments like this where life might've got going billions of years ago on the Earth.
ROWE-GURNEY: And that would be amazing to find.
Even if we just found bacteria, that would be amazing.
NARRATOR: Back in 2015, the Cassini mission studied Saturn, its rings, and moons, and captured this image of plumes bursting out of the ice at Enceladus's southern pole.
CAROLYN PORCO: We saw dozens of fine jets shooting off the south pole of Enceladus.
When these pictures hit the web, the web exploded.
OLUSEYI: And so we see with Enceladus, there are places where the ocean actually escapes from the surface, and it just flows out of these cracks and bursts out into outer space.
PORCO: So this is, in effect, our best opportunity to study an extraterrestrial habitable zone.
NARRATOR: The same may be true for Jupiter's moon Europa, covered with cracks and ridges that could be caused by the heat of an ocean beneath its icy surface.
ROWE-GURNEY: So we'll be looking for water signatures, so H2O, the same water that we have on Earth, and we'll also be looking for things like methane, which can be a chemical tracer that gives us an inclination that there might be something alive.
Bacteria on Earth produces methane.
We probably won't directly image life, because you can't really image bacteria from a telescope, but you can look at what the bacteria creates.
NARRATOR: While the team must wait several months for their observations to come in... ...JWST continues to send home stunning images, like this one of Jupiter.
VILLANUEVA: You can see the rings, you can see the moons.
I mean, this is, this is amazing.
And not only that you can see those images, but you know you can actually explore those elements with incredible precision.
You can see what they're made of.
The composition, the ices, the molecules in them.
ROWE-GURNEY: When I first saw the image, I didn't even think I was looking at Neptune.
I thought I was looking at a totally different planet.
Seeing the rings in that much detail was just mind-blowing.
HAMMEL: The last time we had seen that complete ring system was more than 30 years ago, when the Voyager 2 spacecraft had flown over Neptune.
So what we are going to be doing is looking very carefully at the ring system today.
Looking at how that ring system may have evolved with time over those intervening decades, and trying to understand what that tells us about ring systems in general.
How long do they last?
What's driving them?
EVANS: When you have a new telescope and you're just getting new data, it is very much like being, you know, a child around the holidays, and you, and you come downstairs, and you're, like, "Oh," you know, "what presents are going to be there?"
Every time you get this new image, it's just like unwrapping a present to basically see what there is to see.
So it's a pretty exciting experience.
NARRATOR: But before we get the chance to appreciate these mesmerizing images, they need to be tweaked.
STRAUGHN: The human eyes can only see a very narrow part of the spectrum.
You know, your blue to red.
But there's light on either of the other sides of that spectrum.
And of course, JWST is infrared, so it's on the red side of light.
Right, so Webb is an infrared telescope, so it's, it's sensitive to light that is beyond what our eyes can see.
So that's two layers of adjustments.
NARRATOR: It's the job of the data image developer-- part science geek, part artist-- to take this invisible infrared light and translate it into colors our eyes can see.
JWST takes multiple images of the same celestial object with different infrared filters, represented here in black and white.
DEPASQUALE: We've taken light of different infrared wavelengths and split it up.
And so there's long-wavelength infrared, medium wavelengths, but a little bit shorter, and then shorter wavelengths.
NARRATOR: Now those infrared waves are translated into the colors of the rainbow.
We try to adhere to a philosophy of colorizing the data that we call chromatic ordering.
So we're capturing these wavelengths in infrared light, and we're shifting them into the visible part of the spectrum, and we are assigning colors that represent shorter to longer wavelengths, just like we would see them.
(Mozart sonata playing) NARRATOR: Think of it like a song played on a piano transposed, so we're hearing it in a different key, but it's still the same song.
So the longest wavelength is going to be red, so I will make that red.
The next-longest wavelength, I'll assign that green.
And then the shortest wavelength, and that'll be blue.
In this case, we actually have four filters.
One of them is a narrow-band filter that is really isolating a very specific kind of light.
And that one, we color orange.
So after pulling everything together, I see the, the initial color composite image here, and it's really interesting-- there's a lot of potential here-- but I also see that it's very flat, and it needs some, some compositional work.
ALYSSA PAGAN: And then this where it kind of goes into the subjective and more into the artistic.
DEPASQUALE: The stars can look very different.
The quality of the nebula can look very different.
There isn't really, like, a hard point where it becomes, you know, going from science to art.
It's sort of the whole process.
The science is always there.
We're always respecting the data.
We're not trying to introduce things that weren't there in the data to begin with, and we're not trying to remove things that are there.
So the whole goal of this is to create an aesthetically pleasing image that will capture someone's attention and hopefully inspire them to want to learn more about this region in space.
NARRATOR: This image of the Tarantula Nebula is not only beautiful, JWST'S infrared eye reveals thousands of baby stars once hidden from view, providing researchers new clues to decode the life cycle of stars.
NOTA: You look at a newborn and you get a feeling for what that person will be when they are grown up, and the same thing for stars.
You just measure them at the very beginning, and you can, you can imagine and you can infer how they will be and what they, they will become.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: At the California Institute of Technology, an international team of scientists has gotten its data from JWST.
We're just going to launch right into it.
NARRATOR: They come together to discuss and debate what their test drive of the telescope has delivered.
ARMUS: We have a great team, we have people in the U.S., we have people in Japan, we have people in Europe.
We have young people and old people.
And yeah, and then I was gonna talk about... U: So this group of astronomers I've known for many years, since my graduate school days, and I would call them my family.
(all laughing) Team, Team 7460... EVANS: So for the last two years or so, it's been primarily meetings through Zoom, but there's no substitution for, like, just the energy you get having people in a room together.
It's, it's fantastic.
MAN: And then this is the zoom-in... NARRATOR: The team has gathered to figure out what JWST is telling them about one of the most mysterious objects in the cosmos: supermassive black holes.
All massive galaxies in the universe have a huge black hole at their center.
NORA LÜTZGENDORF: What do I love about black holes?
So black holes are just the most amazing consequence of gravity.
NARRATOR: The gravity of a black hole is so extreme that whatever goes in will never come out.
Not even light itself can escape from it.
MOUNTAIN: Material is falling into it the whole time, and they have these big disks of dust and gas and everything which is swirling around the outside, all trying to fall into the black hole.
SABRINA STIERWALT: But we don't know how they got there.
We don't know how you make a supermassive black hole.
We don't know how they formed.
STRAUGHN: So when we're thinking about these massive black holes at the centers of galaxies, a big question is sort of, "Who's in charge?"
You know, is the host galaxy in control of the galaxy's evolution?
Or is that big black hole at the center, is it having a really strong impact on how the galaxy changes over time?
NARRATOR: In fact, there appears to be an uncanny connection between a supermassive black hole and the galaxy surrounding it.
EVANS: It seems like the ratio for the black hole mass to the star mass is about one to a thousand.
So that seems to imply that somehow the galaxy itself knows how massive the black hole is in it.
It doesn't make that much sense, because the black hole, its sphere of influence is so small, it cannot really know what's around it.
So how would those things be correlated?
Why, why are they so correlated?
EVANS: Keep in mind that we're talking about stars that are so far away from the black hole itself that the stars don't actually feel directly the gravitational influence of the black hole.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: One of the best ways to investigate this strange relationship is to study merging galaxies.
STIERWALT: When you throw two galaxies together, you can potentially grow a supermassive black hole because you're now feeding it.
You're giving it all this material, 'cause it's crashed into this other galaxy.
And by studying merging galaxies, we can potentially understand better how these supermassive black holes grow, what sort of interaction does the supermassive black hole have with its surroundings.
You have both black holes that are feeding and star formation happening in these galaxies.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: All that activity stirs up so much dust, it's nearly impossible to see the action unfold.
It's very hard to actually look and see a black hole because all this dust and gas is in the way.
NARRATOR: And here's where JWST's infrared eye comes into play.
STRAUGHN: So I went to grad school in Arizona, and every now and then, a dust storm would blow through.
And anyone who's ever been in a dust storm knows you can't see through dust.
But infrared light has this amazing property that allows us to peer through dust.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: This is an image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in optical light of two galaxies in the process of merging.
And this is what it looks like in infrared light with the Spitzer Space Telescope.
ARMUS: When you looked at it with Spitzer in infrared light, all of the energy was coming from that one region, behind this shroud, and we knew we wanted to look at that.
NARRATOR: They think somewhere inside this region is a feeding black hole.
But while Spitzer was one of the most advanced infrared telescopes of its day, its mirror was only about three feet in diameter, compared to Hubble's eight-foot mirror and JWST's massive 21-foot mirror.
And so clearly, Spitzer, you know, resolution is fairly low.
But if you go now to what we see with the new James Webb images... (all chuckling, exclaiming) EVANS: ...this is what we see when we have a six-meter telescope in space.
NARRATOR: JWST's spectroscopes see through the dust, revealing these three distinct dots.
Two are clusters of star formation and one of them is likely a feeding black hole.
So the, the final scenario is that now you could see exactly what is on the, that giant blob.
STIERWALT: We previously just knew that something was lighting up the dust, but we didn't know what it was.
We're now able to see, oh, there's a supermassive black hole in there.
And not only that, but it's destroying the dust in its immediate vicinity.
ARMUS: It gives us a very close-up view of what's happening inside the galaxies, how the gas is getting into the supermassive black hole, what the supermassive black hole is doing to the surrounding area.
♪ ♪ U: And so the fact that we can see it at that level of detail is what amazed me.
NARRATOR: Hopes are high that in the coming years, this unprecedented level of detail will provide new clues to how this relationship between supermassive black holes and their galaxies took shape.
♪ ♪ It's early morning at the University of Texas at Austin, and this team has just received its data and images from JWST.
Okay, it's recording.
NARRATOR: Principal investigator Steven Finkelstein keeps a video diary of their work.
We've definitely had some highs, we've had some lows.
Really exciting to see the data when it first came in.
So this one looks really good.
What's in the... You've got something weird going on here.
NARRATOR: The team is testing the telescope's ability to detect galaxies billions and billions of light-years away, to answer a question that has puzzled astronomers for decades: how did the universe first turn on its lights?
When you think about the universe, it's sort of like we have this 13.8-billion-year story, and we've put together a lot of the pieces of that story, we know a lot about it, but there are still these holes, there's these gaps in the story that we don't quite know the answers to.
And one of the critical gaps is sort of the very first chapter of this story of the universe.
We don't know how galaxies got started.
NARRATOR: If the universe had a scrapbook, this is its earliest baby picture, the cosmic microwave background, the afterglow of the Big Bang, when the universe is a mere 378,000 years old.
JOHN MATHER: It has little dimples all over it that are really important to our history.
Our calculation says that the little dimples correspond to variations of density.
And that matters because in our idea, the denser areas turn into objects like galaxies, and stars, and eventually planets and people.
So we're here because there were dimples in the Big Bang.
NARRATOR: But then... RIGBY: There's this missing piece.
There's this... (hums "I don't know") ...that is hundreds of millions of years long.
NARRATOR: A mysterious time known as the Cosmic Dark Ages.
The Dark Ages was a period of the universe's history for several hundred million years when stars themselves didn't exist.
STRAUGHN: You can sort of think of it as a hydrogen fog, mostly hydrogen.
And when you have just hydrogen atoms floating around, the intervening light would sort of bounce off the hydrogen.
And so you can't "see" through it.
So we sort of refer to it as a fog.
NARRATOR: In our next picture, the universe is already in its adolescent years, and pretty grown up.
In fact, it's filled with galaxies.
We have, you know, if you want, teenage pictures and beyond.
We, we're missing the toddler images.
NARRATOR: We're missing that picture of how the Dark Ages ended and the first stars and galaxies took shape.
A blank page in our understanding of our cosmic history, one that many researchers across the globe, like the Austin team, hope to fill.
They spend a week scrutinizing their data in search of ancient galaxies.
So there were a group of us working here together looking at these very distant galaxies.
We'd all gather around the computer, and look at them and say, "Yes, that's a good one, yes, that's a good one.
No, not that one."
NARRATOR: In the process, they discover this faint reddish blob.
When I first saw it, I was, ah, I don't believe it.
It said a redshift of 14.
Redshift of 14 is about 290 million years after the Big Bang.
NARRATOR: If correct, this date would mean that JWST's infrared eye is seeing further back in time than any telescope ever has.
STRAUGHN: One of the amazing things about telescopes is that they are literally time machines.
They allow us to see the universe as it was in the distant past.
NARRATOR: As light travels from ancient galaxies to our telescopes, it goes through a stunning transformation, from optical light, the light we can see, to infrared light.
What's happening in the universe is, it's expanding and pulling space apart as it goes, and it's stretching the light in the same way.
NARRATOR: This strange stretching is called redshift.
The higher the redshift, the older the galaxy.
RIGBY: That's why the telescope was built, to find those distant, faint red galaxies, some of which are the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.
That looks pretty deep.
I mean, obviously, right?
NARRATOR: Based on their preliminary findings, the team thinks it might have found one of the oldest galaxies humans have ever set eyes on.
We've spent the last 24 hours trying to throw everything we can at this galaxy to convince ourselves that it is not an extremely distant galaxy.
And we failed.
(all toasting) FINKELSTEIN: So with that, it's my daughter's birthday, I'm going to go take her to dinner, and then spend all day tomorrow trying to write up this paper draft, and hopefully get it out there pretty soon.
NARRATOR: The team names the galaxy Maisie, after Steven's nine-year-old daughter.
But finding Maisie isn't the biggest surprise.
FINKELSTEIN: We were able to see right away, there were lots of really distant galaxies to find, and every time we made the data better, they just got more believable.
Oh, there's still more!
Yeah, there's so many!
We were giddy, we were little, little schoolchildren.
(chuckling): You know, looking at all these, all these galaxies and all of these images.
NARRATOR: In fact, Maisie is just one of many ancient galaxies that can be found in this stunning mosaic of JWST images.
Galaxies, galaxies, galaxies.
The full image has about 100,000 galaxies.
KARTALTEPE: You hardly find any empty spaces in the images.
Every tiny little speck, every, every space, is a galaxy.
And you zoom in and you see more.
And you zoom in and you see more.
And so this was Maisie's galaxy, this red blob right here.
Beautiful red blob right here.
(Kartaltepe laughs) RIGBY: There's a lot of excitement, there's a lot of early preliminary results.
That's the scientific process where people are finding candidates to be some of these very distant galaxies and then studying their properties.
NARRATOR: For now, Maisie is considered a candidate because its age remains uncertain while the telescope is still being calibrated.
BOYER: It is really important to get the calibration of your telescope right, because when you take an image of a galaxy or a star, basically the, the only thing that you're measuring, the fundamental measurement, is the brightness of that object at different wavelengths.
And so you need to get that brightness right.
NARRATOR: Which is exactly what a team at the Space Telescope Science Institute is attempting to do.
What they find will be crucial for the future of JWST and the reliability of all the findings produced from its data, including the age of ancient galaxies like Maisie.
We can do it better... (people talking in background) NARRATOR: The team is observing a cluster of stars known as Messier 92, one of the brightest and oldest collections of stars in the Milky Way.
BOYER: These are stars that have been studied for decades by lots of telescopes everywhere, and, and we know a lot about them.
NARRATOR: But when they get their data back from JWST... WOMAN: Uh-oh.
I think I found an error.
NARRATOR: ...something's not adding up.
BOYER: When we were looking at the data for the first time, what we were seeing was that the brightness of stars measured on the different detectors was a little bit different on each detector.
So one detector was measuring the star a little bit brighter, the other one was measuring it a little bit fainter.
WOMAN 2: Is this the M92 image that's weird?
WOMAN 1: Yeah.
NARRATOR: Astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi demonstrates the discrepancy they found using some light meters and this 100-watt light bulb.
OLUSEYI: Assume that this light bulb is my star that has been measured over and over and over again for decades.
And I know how bright it is, really.
And now I have a detector that I'm going to point at it, and it's going to give me a reading for how bright this light is.
So, I point this at my star, and then I lock in the measured value.
Now I'm going to take a different detector and I'm going to do the same thing.
♪ ♪ And I do that with another detector.
Hold it for a standard distance, and lock in the value.
Well, guess what?
They don't all have the same reading.
They are slightly different, one from the other, and that's normal.
If I took the light from a single star and shined it on different detectors, they may each give us a different reading.
NARRATOR: It's a common problem instrument scientist Mike Ressler knows all too well.
He helped to develop the detectors for one of the instruments onboard JWST, called MIRI.
RESSLER: The detectors we use in MIRI are silicon detectors, and they are very similar to the detectors that you might find in a digital camera.
NARRATOR: In fact, if you take off the lens, you'll find a detector behind the shutter, this greenish-gray rectangular silicon chip.
RESSLER: The light comes through the lens and gets focused on that rectangle, and that is the detector.
Each detector has its own personality, so one detector might be a little more sensitive than another.
They don't all respond to light in the same way.
NARRATOR: MIRI has three detectors like this one.
Onboard JWST there are 18, each with its own personality.
We're trying to ensure that the personality of the detector doesn't show up in our data.
We want the data to represent what's actually out in the universe.
NARRATOR: Using the known brightness of the stars in Messier 92 as their guide, the team adjusts how it processes the data, updating the calibration of the telescope.
OLUSEYI: Once we've calibrated our instrument, we can go and point it at things that we have no idea how bright they are intrinsically, and by measuring its brightness, we can now get a very accurate measurement of its distance.
And those are the numbers that go into our calculations of the evolution of the universe.
NARRATOR: Back in Austin, the team is also improving how they process their data.
This, along with tweaks in the calibration of the instruments, modifies the estimate of Maisie's age.
FINKELSTEIN: The distance did change over time in the first few weeks, as we understood the data.
That revised the distance estimate from a time about 300 million years after the Big Bang to about 370 million years after the Big Bang.
NARRATOR: Maisie is probably out of the running for most ancient galaxy ever seen.
There's sort of a game in the field of trying to find the record holder, right?
Because it's exciting, and everybody wants the most distant one, and that's fun.
But I think the real science is going to come from studying their properties in more detail, what their colors are, what their shapes are, what the properties of their stars are, and that's scientifically a lot more interesting than, than just the record holder.
NARRATOR: The telescope has been exploring the cosmos 24/7.
Exoplanet researchers Kevin Stevenson and David Sing are about to receive data for what may be one of the telescope's most challenging observations so far: attempting to detect the atmosphere of a rocky exoplanet, something that has never been done by any other telescope.
They focus on an exoplanet named GJ 486 b.
Researchers estimate it's about 30% larger than Earth, but in comparison to Jupiter and a gas giant like WASP-39b, it's downright puny, making its atmosphere much harder to detect.
So, of all the rocky planets out there, why pick this one?
It's only about 26 light-years away.
So it's very close just in our own neighborhood.
NARRATOR: When it comes to the size of the universe, that's practically next door.
This planet also orbits close to a red dwarf, a star that's smaller and dimmer than our sun.
STEVENSON: When we want to study rocky planets that are Earth-sized, we cannot change the size of the planet.
So our goal is to go after those rocky planets that are around the smallest stars.
So it's one of the few select planets you have a chance to see an atmosphere around a rocky planet.
All righty, let's get this party started, and look at the second transit.
NARRATOR: JWST has documented a transit.
Now the search for an atmosphere begins.
They spend days analyzing their observations, each using slightly different methods to process the data.
Kevin's results look promising.
There's a lot to look into to make sure that the result is robust.
But, at this point, maybe.
That would be cool.
NARRATOR: Their next step: to meet with fellow team members to compare their findings.
WOMAN: Oh, yeah.
Okay, well, let's take a look at the transmission spectrum.
NARRATOR: It turns out that when David processed the data, he didn't find the chemical signature of an atmosphere.
SING: So one possibility is, it doesn't have any atmosphere, and the spectra will look basically just like a flat line.
So there's a lot of talk about, is it a flat line?
Is it not a flat line?
NARRATOR: A flat line, because the chemical signature of the star's light did not seem to change when the planet passed in front of it.
MAN: Okay, now let's look at Kevin's.
We've got it looking inconsistent with a flat line, first blush.
NARRATOR: Kevin did detect a tiny shift.
This one is pretty consistent with water.
(man chuckling) MAN 3: Wow.
MAN 1: Yeah.
NARRATOR: Water could mean that this rocky world has an atmosphere.
Well, I think an atmosphere is still on the table.
I mean, if I bet right now, I think it would probably be a flat line.
But it's close.
NARRATOR: It will take months and more observations to determine if GJ 486 b has an atmosphere.
♪ ♪ We are on the bloody edge of, of, like, what this telescope can do.
We are on the very edge of what the instrument capabilities are, the telescope precision, and we are hoping that we can tease out signals that are on the order of tens of parts per million.
We don't know the answer yet, but we also can't say that the transmission spectrum is flat.
And so there's optimism.
I would say cautiously optimistic.
NARRATOR: When it comes to the search for the chemical building blocks of life in our own solar system, JWST's observations of Enceladus and Europa are finally in.
I was wondering about this, by the way.
NARRATOR: And researchers have begun to analyze their data pixel by pixel, creating these chemical maps of two mysterious worlds.
When it comes to the plumes of Enceladus, they see something downright bizarre.
We saw this huge plume which extends, like, 40 times the size of the moon.
NARRATOR: To put this in perspective, this red pixel is about the size of Enceladus.
The moon is within a pixel.
A pixel is actually bigger than the moon.
NARRATOR: The blue pixels around it: water pouring out of the plumes.
VILLANUEVA: This cannot be right.
This too big compared to the moon.
NARRATOR: And this massive plume may be chock full of clues to the chemical building blocks of life in its underground ocean.
VILLANUEVA: We can look for carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide.
For every single pixel that we have, we actually had a full spectrum behind it.
NARRATOR: Europa also delivers a surprise.
It turns out that its surface is far more complex than the team expected.
So this is on the surface.
This is on the surface.
We're seeing all this surface composition, you know, speaking to us, I mean, and we have a spectra for every single of these pixels, so we can actually see what it's made of.
So I think this data is going to be super-cool.
We're seeing things on the surface I've never seen before.
We can see the ices changing, and new ices, signatures that we were not expecting.
You just have to go and mine it and search for it.
If you don't search for it, you don't know.
So our exploration has been just slowly going molecule by molecule, but there are hundreds of other molecules or ices that may be hidden below, behind every pixel.
NARRATOR: Geronimo Villanueva and his team will spend the next few months poring over those pixels, hunting for the chemical building blocks of life on Europa and Enceladus.
♪ ♪ Back in Austin, the team has received more data, this time from JWST's spectroscopes.
The spectra tell us about the chemistry.
It tells us about the physics.
It tells us how many heavy elements have built up.
It can tell us what the age is, it can tell us what the rate at which the galaxy is forming stars.
And so all of the really important physical information really comes from the spectra.
NARRATOR: And the spectra are filled with the unexpected.
KARTALTEPE: One of the things that really strikes me about looking at the spectra of these high redshift galaxies is how much detail we see.
In these data that we're just getting, we're seeing signatures of heavier elements, even for very high redshift galaxies.
So you're seeing oxygen emission here.
We're also finding hydrogen lines.
We're finding neon.
So this is all kinds of detailed information about galaxies in the first, you know, 500 million years that we've never, ever had before.
And so we're not just finding these galaxies and images, we're actually characterizing them for the first time.
And so this is really exciting and revolutionary.
NARRATOR: But it also poses more questions than answers.
Detecting these heavy elements in such ancient galaxies means the universe may have turned on its lights much faster than predicted.
KARTALTEPE: So both the fact that we're seeing a lot of high redshift, massive galaxies, and the fact that we're seeing chemically enriched galaxies at this time period, gives us a bit of a mystery.
So why is it that stars would have either formed earlier in the universe than we thought or formed more rapidly, right?
Something about that process of star formation is more efficient, is happening, you know, more rapidly than we initially might have guessed.
OLUSEYI: We had models of how the first galaxies form, how long it takes, what they look like, and James Webb Space Telescope completely blew these models apart, right?
We found that our models...
They were a little slow in comparison to nature.
(murmuring) KARTALTEPE: The fact that we're finding more than what most models predict means there's something about those models that's incorrect.
And so I think the models of how these galaxies form in the early universe are going to have to change to actually match the observations now.
NARRATOR: With each new telescope, our picture of the universe is sharpened.
When you have new eyes, you discover new things.
And that's exactly what's happening here.
It's almost like discovering a new land, discovering a new planet.
With Webb, we're discovering a new universe.
NARRATOR: JWST's first chapter of exploration has demonstrated just how revolutionary it can be.
ROWE-GURNEY: It's surprising, every single time we point the telescope at something new.
It hasn't really failed us yet.
JWST is doing exactly what we thought it would and more.
RIGBY: I know that we've built a telescope that is still more capable, and we're just tapping into those abilities.
And so I think the next couple of years are going to be tremendous, and that we really haven't seen anything yet.
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