Science writer Natalie Wolchover has received a 2022 Pulitzer Prize for her work in Quanta Magazine, in which she explains the complicated history of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which was launched in December.
Wolchover is senior writer and editor at Quanta and has been with the magazine since its inception in 2013. From 2010 to 2012 she was a staff writer (opens in new tab) for Space.com’s sister site Live Science. The Pulitzer, presented to the magazine on May 9 with a special mention for Wolchover, was in the explanatory reporting category.
The Pulitzer Committee awarded the 2022 Explanatory Reporting Prize “for reporting that demonstrated the complexities of building the James Webb Space Telescope, which is designed to facilitate groundbreaking astronomical and cosmological research,” the organization said (opens in new tab).
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Wolchover was just recovering from COVID-19 when the news got through to her. “I’m laying in bed in a COVID daze struggling to believe this is real and not a fever dream,” she said joked on Twitter (opens in new tab).
“It’s a wonderful recognition of our entire team and of the ethos of science journalism,” she added of the award-winning story (opens in new tab)entitled “The Webb Space Telescope Will Rewrite Cosmic History. If it works.”
Wolchover’s story elegantly traces the laborious engineering process that produced the James Webb Space Telescope, a $10 billion observatory that launched more than a decade late and well over budget. She notes that even after the launch (which took place on December 25, 2021; the article was published on December 3), Webb still faced numerous problems during its commissioning.
For example, she describes how the telescope was carefully folded into the rocket to be unrolled for the long journey to a location in space where sunshade must be done just right to shield the telescope from the sun interfering with the infrared would observations.
“The sunshade is both an infrared telescope’s only hope and its Achilles’ heel. In order to deploy too big enough without weighing down a rocket, the sunshade needs to be made of thin fabric,” she wrote.
After discussing Webb’s tiny mass compared to a ground-based telescope, a necessity to get the groundbreaking observatory into space, she further elaborated on the matter issue.
I’m lying in bed in a COVID daze struggling to believe this is real and not a fever dream. I mean holy crap. Thank you all for the nice messages!!! https://t.co/BZqYpJOkrvMay 9, 2022
“Nothing about building a huge but lightweight infrared-sensing spacecraft is easy, but the inevitable use of cloth makes it an inherently risky proposition,” Wolchover said. “Material is, say engineers, ‘non-deterministic’, its movements cannot be perfectly controlled or predicted. If the sunshade gets stuck when you roll it up, the whole telescope becomes space junk.”
Fortunately, Webb’s deployment went smoothly, and after nearly five consecutive months of commissioning in space, NASA also coincidentally announced in May that the observatory is on the “home stretch” of the 1,000-step commissioning period. The first scientific images from the space telescope are expected in July.
Wolchover also mentions in the article the groundbreaking research Webb will undertake if all goes according to plan, as it examines the early universe, seeks out the first galaxies, and otherwise seeks to understand the forces that shaped the cosmos.
Wolchover was a staff writer at LiveScience, a sister publication of Space.com, between 2010 and 2012. Outlining some of the most important mysteries in physics was one of the notable stories she has been writing for LiveScience over the past few months (opens in new tab)a discussion about whether the Voyager 1 spacecraft had left the solar system (opens in new tab)and the physics of the first supersonic space dive (opens in new tab). Wolchover also wrote occasionally for Space.com.
She has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Tufts University and, according to her Live Science biography, studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and before the Pulitzer, she won numerous other journalism awards. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual award for young science writers, and the 2017 winner of the Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.
“Her work has also appeared in The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science,” reads her Live Science bio (opens in new tab).