Scientists and space enthusiasts the world over rekindled their sense of wonder this week as NASA unveiled the first full-color images from the James Webb Space Telescope. The pictures give us exceptional new details of stars, galaxies and nebulas across space and across time.
Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke to Nobel laureate Adam Riess, a professor of astronomy and physics at Johns Hopkins University. She asked him exactly what it is we’re seeing in the first image NASA put out. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Adam Riess: We’re seeing a cluster of galaxies. So it’s a huge collection of galaxies, almost like a city of galaxies all together. And they’re relatively in the foreground, they’re only a mere 6 or 7 billion light-years away. And their combined mass is acting like a giant magnifying lens, but a distorted magnifying lens. Kind of like a fun house mirror. This is sort of one of the superpowers, really, of the telescope and of space itself, to allow us to learn about what it’s composed of.
Kimberly Adams: What did it feel like looking at that first set of images on Monday and on Tuesday?
Riess: To be honest with you, it reminded me of a simulation of how good the images should look. You had to just keep looking and zooming in and go, “I don’t know. That’s real. No, that’s a real image.” Because it looks almost like something you create out of [computer-generated imagery]. The universe is so amazing. The first image is like an emporium of wonders, you could just spend forever just panning and zooming around it and seeing all these crazy shapes and features, as we literally watch galaxies evolve and age and turn into their modern counterparts.
Adams: Explain that a little bit more for me, please, because a lot of people talk about these images as looking back in time. What does that mean?
Riess: Right. Every time we look out at the universe, we are seeing objects at different distances in the same field of view. But if you look very far away, it takes light a long time to reach us because even traveling at the speed of light, we’re talking about billions of light-years of distance. And so when we look at one of these deep images, we are seeing the whole sequence from early shortly after the Big Bang all the way to the present time. And we’re seeing objects evolving or changing at different slices in time. So we really see the whole history of the creation of galaxies. For the most part, we’re seeing one object at one stage in its development, and then at a different slice in distance or time, we’re seeing different objects at maybe in a more advanced stage of development. It’s sort of like if you took a core sample of the Earth. In one core sample, you might have little bugs and creatures at the top that are the way things are now. And you might still have the fossilized versions of things way far down, except these aren’t even fossilized. The light is still traveling to us from far, far away. So we’re seeing those things as they were then.
Adams: Amazing — space and time. So in addition to the beautiful photo that we saw on Monday, what else has NASA released from the James Webb Space Telescope?
Riess: In the nearby universe, we see a merging of four or five galaxies sort of crashing into each other and giving rise to a new round of star formation. We also have a spectrum of the atmosphere of a planet nearby, where we can actually see water on the atmosphere of the planet. It’s a very hot planet, so it’s more like steam. But it’s remarkable. This is part of this journey with this new telescope of being able to characterize the compositions of planets around us and look for signatures of life.
Adams: What’s the significance of that discovery?
Riess: For a long time, there’s only been Earth and the planets in our solar system. And it’s only been in the last two decades [that] we’ve come to understand there [are] planets around other stars. But now, this is the next stage of detective work to see what they’re made of, in this quest to understand, are we alone? Are we in a unique place? Or are we in a relatively common place? What’s everything else made out of? And so that is a question that I think people have been curious about ever since they could even think about it. And we’re beginning that process — baby steps, but we are beginning that process.
Adams: What specific technology on the James Webb Space Telescope makes this possible to see the composition of the atmosphere of planets and to look so far back in the past?
Riess: The primary thing to think about is really the mirror, which is not one solid mirror, but is 18 of these hexagonal segments that have to unfurl just so. In order to see the very distant universe, we need a very quiet telescope. And quiet in this case means very cold so that it doesn’t emit any of its own light. And, of course, nobody can work on the telescope, nobody can service it, it’s too far away. So everything has to work or work from a distance with commands.
Adams: This telescope has only been out there for the last six months, really. What questions are you expecting the images and the data it collects to answer moving forward?
Riess: What’s most amazing about telescopes like these, or anytime we’ve had something like this, like when Hubble first went up, it’s the questions you didn’t even know you had or didn’t even know to ask that get addressed or cause to be questions by what you see. And so we’re really looking forward to the unexpected.
Adams: What of the images and data that you’ve seen has struck you the most?
Riess: Well, it’s got to be the deep field — the deep field on top of that cluster. The combined power of the James Webb Space Telescope and nature’s natural telescope, this magnifying effect, has already shown us these incredibly distant galaxies that are born just shortly after the Big Bang and is allowing us to see sort of how things grew up. And already, it’s been tremendously exciting. And bear in mind, this is from an observation that took something like 12 hours on the James Webb Space Telescope, so we can’t even imagine what it’s going to look like when we have weeks or months to stare at one spot, how far back in time and space we’ll be able to see.
Adams: My goodness. What was your reaction the moment you saw that deep field image?
Riess: I just kept looking at it and thinking, like, “Is this real? How could this be real?” And, really, at some level, I think the thing that struck me the most was, I grew up, like many of us, thinking of the sky as a place that was dark at night with a few exceptions of stars and little blobs of light. And when you can see this deeply, and with this kind of resolution, actually you start to see most of the image is actually light. The darkness starts to become the rarity, if you know what I mean. And so it’s almost like a completely different conception of the universe as a place that’s mostly filled with activity, mostly filled with luminous things, mostly not empty.
Adams: Wow. So it’s changed your view of the universe.
Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams
NASA not only released images from the James Webb Space Telescope, but it also published charts and data.
And although everyone seems to love the images from Webb, the project is not without controversy. Scientific American has an article from April detailing how LGBTQ+ astronomers are pressuring NASA to change the telescope’s name.
James Webb was NASA’s administrator in the 1960s, and his detractors argue there is evidence Webb was involved in persecuting lesbian and gay federal employees before and during his tenure. The piece links to a PDF of more than 300 emails between employees and NASA leadership regarding this debate. Those emails were obtained by the journal Nature in March.
NASA responded to the controversy in September 2021, saying, “We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.”