Good things come to astronomers who wait

Scientists and journalists share a deep fascination with what’s new, but our patience can be tried when a promised big new thing is delayed. That’s particularly true of the protracted wait for the James Webb Space Telescope, which has stretched from a promised 20 years or so to 32 years — enough to make the project the butt of many jokes.

Finally the massive telescope, designed to capture faint hints of infrared light from the distant reaches of the universe, is poised to launch in December. And astonishingly, it’s not past its freshness date. In this issue, astronomy writer Lisa Grossman explains that the long delay may end up making the instrument actually more useful. Advances in the last few decades, including the discovery of thousands of exoplanets, have raised exciting questions, including whether there’s life on those planets, that the telescope is now poised to explore.

The telescope is also beautiful, with a golden sunflower-like mirror and horizontal “sails” that shield the spacecraft from the sun. I’m a word person, and one of the great pleasures of my job is to see how our design team uses images and graphics to explain complex science. In this case, it involved sifting through many images to find an illustration that reveals how the craft, which will be folded like an umbrella for launch, will look once it’s unfolded and flying in space. It’s a joyous expression of science in action that requires no words.

Also in this issue, you’ll find an update on our SN 10: Scientists to Watch. In years past, this project has introduced early- and mid-career scientists doing fascinating, significant work. This year, because of the tumult in science and the world, we chose to check back in with several of the scientists we profiled in years past to see how their research, and their perspectives, have changed. Theirs are inspiring stories of adaptability, creativity and perseverance, and speak to how essential science is in answering the challenges that humankind and our planet face. They give me hope for our shared future.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.