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Artist's impression of the James Webb Space Telescope

We’ve played a key role in the development and engineering of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which has begun its journey to the stars.

Durham’s scientists will also be among the first to observe the cosmos using the JWST as they hunt for dark matter and investigate early galaxy formation.

The JWST is NASA’s replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope and is the largest, most powerful space telescope ever built.

Black holes

Our Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy has been involved in the telescope’s scientific development, including the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), which will probe galaxies and black holes.

The centres of many distant and some nearby galaxies, are hidden behind large amounts of dust. At the infrared wavelengths accessible to the JWST it will be possible to "see through" this dust to study enshrouded black holes, and get a better understanding of their role in galaxy formation.

Our Centre for Advanced Instrumentation has also made some of the optics for the JWST’s Near Infrared Spectrograph’s (NIRSpec) Integral Field Unit instrument.

Dark matter

We’re part of the global COSMOS-Web programme, the biggest General Observer programme selected for the JWST’s first year of operation.

COSMOS-Web will survey a patch of sky near the constellation Sextans and, thanks to the JWST’s increased resolution, our astronomers expect to see half-a-million distant galaxies.

Together with researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we will lead work to map the scaffolding of dark matter that surrounds these galaxies and has shaped their evolution.

Galaxy formation

Our Institute for Computational Cosmology has worked on predictions, based on cosmological theory, for what the JWST should expect to see. Current research is looking to predict what the ancestors of galaxies like the Milky Way would look like in their infancy when viewed by the JWST.

And an international team involving Durham will combine the telescope’s high resolution with gravitational lensing – using the gravitational effect of a foreground galaxy to magnify those further away – to look at one of the most distant known galaxies called MACS0647-JD.

Hubble spotted this galaxy forming stars at an astonishingly fast rate, very early in the life of the universe.

At a time when almost everything in the universe was dark matter or hydrogen, these stars “manufactured” the first heavy elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen.

We’ll be studying these elements to understand the early phases of galaxy formation at the beginning of the universe and how its stars produced these first heavy elements.

Find out more

  • Professor Martin Ward, Emeritus Temple Chevallier Professor of Astronomy, Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, was national co-investigator of the UK part of MIRI. Martin was also the Chairman of European Space Agency’s (ESA) Astronomy Working Group when it approved the ESA instrument involvement in JWST.