to infinity and beyond
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, described by The New Yorker as a "potentially revolutionary instrument," is set to launch into orbit a million miles from Earth later this year. If all goes according to plan, it should be able to give scientists a clearer glimpse into the universe's past than ever before, but it may also be able to tell us a lot about things a little closer to home.
David Helfland, an astronomer at Columbia University, told The New Yorker that the J.W.S.T will be able to examine both the "'Very Far Away' and 'Very close.'" The latter, he said, "in some ways may be the most exciting" because "it's about looking at planets that are not too different from Earth."
Those planets, known as exoplanets, lay beyond the Solar System and are the subject of a burgeoning scientific field called exoplanetology. Though they don't emit light, Helfland explained that when they "pass in front of a star they leave a sort of fingerprint," which can be read for clues. There's hope that that the J.W.S.T will use those close to study atmospheres of these planets and see if there are signs of life, such as the detection of oxygen or other gases. Read more about the J.W.S.T at The New Yorker.