NASA’s James Webb Telescope reveals the beauty of the universe
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is now operational. The latest space observatory, a joint effort of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, has rendered the first images of the vast universe.
One of the reasons many are fascinated by space is that the universe is beautiful. Who has seen images of stars, nebulae, galaxies, planets and even moons and hasn’t been impressed?
Over the past few decades, space telescopes have enhanced astronomy, not clouded by Earth’s atmosphere. The Hubble Space Telescope has not only advanced our knowledge of the universe, but also our appreciation of its beauty through the images it has returned.
Now it’s the Webb Telescope’s turn to enrich knowledge and reveal the beauty of the universe.
NASA revealed The first picture at the White House to President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. The image was of a galactic cluster, a colorful network whose light had traveled over 13 billion years. The image was full of details of how galaxies formed towards the very beginning of the universe. As spectacular as the image is, it represents only a tiny fraction of the night sky.
The next day, NASA revealed four more images taken by the Webb Telescope, each more spectacular than the next. They are:
- The Carina Nebula: “This landscape of ‘mountains’ and ‘valleys’ dotted with twinkling stars is actually the edge of a nearby young star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula.”
- Stephan’s Quintet: “a visual grouping of five galaxies, is best known for being featured prominently in the classic holiday movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.'”
- The South Ring Nebula: “The darker star at the center of this scene has been sending rings of gas and dust for thousands of years in all directions.”
- Wasp-96-B: “the distinct signature of water, along with evidence of clouds and haze, in the atmosphere surrounding a hot, puffy gas giant planet orbiting a distant Sun-like star.”
Later, NASA released JWST images of Jupiter and some of its moons, taken with its near-infrared camera. The images proved that the space telescope could show nearby objects in our solar system as well as distant stars and galaxies.
The Webb Telescope lasted 25 years. Its slipping schedule and inflated costs had led some to suggest it was a fiscal black hole. Launching and deploying it was so complex it was a $10 billion gamble.
The Webb Telescope has survived all the technical, fiscal and political challenges that have beset it over the long years of its design and construction. It will spend at least the next 20 years unearthing the secrets of the universe with its infrared and near-infrared imaging technology.
From time to time, critics of big science projects like the Webb Telescope wonder if the time and resources spent on them might not be better spent on other priorities, such as solving the social ills of poverty, hunger and environmental degradation. The end Richard Feynman suggested that science has intrinsic value because the knowledge gained in this way allows us to do and do things that we would not be able to do otherwise.
The critic might reply that, yes, that might be an argument for applied science research, as an effort to discover cures for disease or ways to produce more food at lower cost. Does this principle apply to astronomy and astrophysics, which might not have obvious practical applications?
No one can know in advance what the practical results of projects like the Webb Telescope will be. We cannot know the unknown until we set out to know it.
Also, as mentioned earlier, the images returned by the telescope are beautiful in the same way as a great work of art. The beauty of the universe, and its ability to inspire, has its own value and is well worth the cost and effort to reveal it.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Space Exploration Studies”Why is it so difficult to return to the Moon?” as good as “The Moon, Mars and beyond,” and “Why is America going back to the Moon?“He blogs about Grumpy corner.