It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words.
The first images from the James Webb Space Telescope did not disappoint. At the July 12 press conference, the world had a front row seat to the most remarkable images of the universe ever taken.
Over the course of the hour, five images left us wanting more. This is just the tip of the cosmic iceberg.
The deep-field image showed thousands of galaxies, including a few that appear stretched out. This is not a defect of the telescope. It is the distortion caused by the gravity of a large foreground galaxy.
Albert Einstein predicted this warping, or the curvature of the fabric of spacetime, much like someone standing on a trampoline where the rubber mat is warped.
The larger the object, the greater the distortion of light. To show the power of the telescope, the area of space where the deep-field image was taken was as small as a grain of sand held at arm’s length.
This cluster is located 4.6 billion light-years away. This is how long it took for light to reach us and when the sun and planets were slowly created from the solar nebula.
The Webb project suffered setbacks along the way, such as a redesign, and the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help matters.
When completed, the 18 gold-plated six-sided honeycomb mirrors measure a total of 6.5 meters wide, compared to the single 2.4-meter-wide Hubble mirror.
This translates to greater light-gathering power, as well as its infrared ability to observe heat signatures through interstellar dust clouds.
Another essential element of the telescope is the sunshade measuring the size of a tennis court. Composed of a lightweight material with special thermal properties, the five layers will provide a shield against the heat and light of the sun as well as the heat from its instruments, allowing the sensitive infrared to operate without interference.
The mirror will operate at -223 degrees Celsius and the rest of the equipment close to absolute zero, which is -273 degrees Celsius.
In the wise words of Carl Sagan, “somewhere, something amazing is waiting to be known”.
The James Webb Space Telescope has opened a news portal to discovery. Will we ever see the first infant stars and galaxies dating back 13.8 billion years?
Only time will tell.
Gary Boyle is an astronomy educator, speaker and monthly columnist for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He has also been interviewed on over 50 Canadian radio stations and was honored with the renaming of asteroid (22406) Garyboyle. Follow him on Twitter at @astroeducator or on his website, wondersofastronomy.com.