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Science’s 2022 Breakthrough of the Year: NASA’s Stellar New Space Telescope

JWST's golden eye sees the universe anew, and more. | Science/ AAAS

After numerous setbacks, 20 years of development, a hefty $10 billion price tag, and a perilous 1.5-million-kilometer journey into space, a new space telescope finally opened its golden, infrared eye and gave us a glimpse of our universe — and its unfathomable past — in stunning, unprecedented detail.

To honor this feat, Science has named the flight of the JWST as its 2022 Breakthrough of the Year.

"After the years of delay and the nailbiter journey into space, JWST is a triumph," said Tim Appenzeller, the lead editor for Science's news section. "It's a breakthrough that will lead to many others, answering profound questions about the early universe and the nature of planets around other stars."

The Universe in Frame

Unhindered by the Earth's atmosphere, space telescopes provide an unspoiled view of our surrounding universe. However, unlike its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, JWST can capture infrared light, including light emitted from the very first stars and galaxies to wink into existence.

One of the first JWST images unveiled to the public in July 2022 — a picture of a region of the night sky roughly the size of a grain of sand held at arm's length — provided a tiny glimpse of our vast universe. Yet contained within this picture were thousands of galaxies, more distant and ancient than any previously documented — some perhaps more than 150 million years older than the oldest identified by Hubble.

The light from these galaxies traveled for billions of years before gracing JWST's camera sensors.

But it's not just the absurdly distant on which JWST has set its gaze.

The telescope can collect light from astronomical objects within our Milky Way galaxy — ranging from vast stellar nurseries like the Carina Nebula and the Pillars of Creation to the many recently detected exoplanets that orbit nearby stars.

These data have already begun to reveal the atmospheric composition of planets hundreds of light-years from Earth in great detail, including the planet WASP-39b, which has since become the most well-characterized planet beyond the eight major planets in our own solar system.

Further observations from this and other exoplanets have the potential to offer hints as to whether these distant worlds could support life as we know it.

According to many astronomers, there is little doubt that JWST will continue to revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos for decades to come.

Runners-up for the Breakthrough of the Year include the discovery of a massive microbe nearly 5,000 times bigger than many other bacterial cells; the development of a perennial rice variety; new insights into how the Black Death altered the genes of Europeans; an ancient ecosystem reconstructed from 2-million-year-old environmental DNA preserved in Greenland permafrost; advancements in an RSV vaccine; NASA's successful DART satellite mission; the passing of landmark climate law; rapid development of creative AI; and the identification of the virus that may cause multiple sclerosis.

Carina Nebula image from JWST
Young, star-forming region in the Carina Nebula, captured by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on JWST. | NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Science also named several "breakdowns" of the year. They include the failure of China's zero-COVID policies; the European energy crisis driven by Russia's invasion of Ukraine; and the impact of escalating political tensions between global superpowers on scientific collaborations.

A new Breakthrough of the Year Award

Now that the Science news and editorial staff have selected the 2022 Breakthrough, a committee of approximately 10 individuals — convened by Science Family of Journals Editor-in-Chief Holden Thorp — will select up to three individuals to receive the first inaugural Mani L. Bhaumik Breakthrough of the Year Award.

Supported by an $11.4 million pledge to AAAS, the Bhaumik Breakthrough of the Year Award will honor up to three winners whose work best exemplifies the research related to the Science Breakthrough of the Year with a prize of $250,000.

"This award gives the committee latitude with respect to who they select, which is an exciting feature compared to other committees of this award type," said Thorp in a press release. "Usually, the individuals are selected first, but here a key research advance is selected, and then a committee decides who the standout contributors are."

The individual winner or winners will be announced before the end of March 2023.


Walter Beckwith

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