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The James Webb Telescope Provides Our Best Glimpse Yet Into the Past

By James Field | Miscellaneous | July 13, 2022 |

By James Field | Miscellaneous | July 13, 2022 |


Sir Isaac Newton first said, “The universe is amazeballs.” And he was right. Humans have looked for knowledge among the stars ever since we stopped falling out of trees. Various civilizations mapped the orbits of the moon, planets, and stars over 5,000 years ago and formed the basis of our understanding of the universe. Modern tools have allowed us to glimpse far more than those ancestors could ever imagine, from atomic structures and DNA to solar systems and even individual planets that are microscopic on a galactic scale. Amazeballs indeed.

Our latest tool in the war against ignorance is the James Webb Space Telescope, launched in December of 2021 to replace the aging Hubble Telescope. It’s significantly more sensitive, able to detect objects 100 times fainter than the 32-year-old Hubble. This allows it to see further back in time, a concept that still breaks my brain. Light’s speed is inconsequential compared to the breadth of the universe, so the farther we look along its trail, the farther back in time we see. Hubble, using visible wavelengths of light, looks back to approximately 400 million years after the Big Bang. That’s already back more than 13 billion years. But by that point stars had already formed into galaxies. Using infrared light the Webb Space Telescope can see back to about 180 million years post-Bang, right into the 80-million-year-long period when the first stars were taking shape. It’s action on a cosmic scale too vast to comprehend, but that’s the cool thing about humans; some try anyway. And sometimes we get really cool computer backgrounds out of it.

That’s the case here, as NASA shared with an eager globe of space nerds on Monday. The first image released was of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. And it’s gorgeous.


SMACS 0723 as seen here is about 4.6 billion years old, slightly older than the planet on which we sit. The faintest dots of light in the image are vastly older, galaxies that formed within a billion years of the Big Bang. We can see them in part because the gravity of the SMACS 0723 cluster is so powerful it bends and magnifies light from even farther galaxies. 0723 is itself another lens for the Webb Space Telescope.

Another very cool aspect in a very long list of cool things about the telescope? That photo up there is essentially a 12.5-hour exposure, with infrared readings taken along different wavelengths for half a day and merged into a single composite image. Conventional dabblers in digital photography use Photoshop to do something similar when shooting in low-light scenarios. Take two photos of the same landscape; one with a properly lit foreground and a blown-out sky, the other with a visible sky and land too dark to see. Merge the two together and you’ve got one properly exposed photo. This is like that, only much more complicated, more expensive, and badass. That same photo would’ve taken Hubble weeks, and contained much less detail.

Of course, as with any new and exciting scientific advance, there’s a segment of the population that fails to see any value in broadening our understanding of the universe. Make the mistake of scrolling too far down one of NASA’s excited Twitter posts and they pop up like depressed meerkats, bemoaning the cost ($10 billion over the past 20 years) while we’ve yet to cure cancer or solve climate change. That cost is less than 1.25% of the US’s annual military budget. We can argue about the value of broadening our grasp of reality — it’s incredibly valuable and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong and probably a secret cannibal — but it’s a drop in the well of our financial resources, and in return we get to see how our universe began. We could, theoretically, discover proof of intelligent alien life that went extinct before our species even evolved. It’s incredibly unlikely but the chance exists. Even if we don’t, we will learn more about the formation of stars and other celestial bodies than we’ve ever known. It’s a humbling thought.

@NASAWebb is worth a follow so you’ll be alerted to newly released images, and as always they’re worth viewing at full resolution on the web. Future photos will have significantly longer exposure times, giving us glimpses of never-before-seen galaxies, stars, and planets. Webb has already discovered water vapor on at least 1 exoplanet! And keep an eye on the skies! You never know what discoveries we’ll make next.

Header Image Source: NASA