Should we call the first pictures from the Webb Space Telescope a palate cleanser or news?

They’re the most wondrous photographs ever produced. I’d say that tilts towards “news.”

I pay less attention to space exploration than most Very Online nerds seem to, so here’s a PSA in case you’re in the same boat. You should pay attention to this, as what NASA has revealed in the last 24 hours is beyond human imagination.

In fact, it’s practically beyond human cognition. Gaze upon this, grasp that you’re staring at a constellation of galaxies, then get your mind around this fact: “This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.”

Compare that to the resolution on the Hubble Space Telescope:

You want the big version, don’t you? Sure you do. Here.

We all “know” that the universe is essentially infinite, but seeing is believing. The distances of the galaxies from Earth in the Webb image are so fantastically vast that the light they generated billions of years ago is only now reaching the telescope. The photo above, in other words, shows how that patch of universe looked at around the time the Earth and sun were forming. “We are looking back in time to within a billion years after the big bang when viewing the youngest galaxies in this field,” NASA’s press release reads.

Even they’re speechless at what they’re finding. Literally:

What makes the Webb telescope such an upgrade over Hubble? Distance, for one thing — Webb sits far beyond Hubble’s orbit. And whereas Hubble is more of a traditional telescope, detecting visible light, Webb specializes in detecting infrared. It can “spot celestial objects that are about 100 times fainter than the ones Hubble can detect,” writes Marina Koren, comparing the size of Hubble’s “deep field” space photos to a sheet of paper and the size of Webb’s to a 16×16 mural.

All of which means much clearer images, of course:

The Webb telescope operates instead in the infrared spectrum, a wavelength of light beyond the visible spectrum that is a measure more of heat than of light. Hubble could never see the 13.6 billion light years distant that Webb can, because visible light from so far away is obscured by dust and gas in deep space. Infrared light cuts right through that interference. In order to work, then, Webb needs to be protected from stray heat, which would blur its infrared optics just as stray light would blur Hubble’s visible-spectrum mirrors. For that reason, the telescope must be kept ultra cold. That makes for some unusual architecture.

The Webb’s main mirror measures 6.5 m (21.6 ft.) across, and is made of 18 hexagonal segments, each of which can be adjusted in seven different axes with a precision down to the nanometer—or a billionth of a meter—allowing the overall mirror to be focused for maximum detail and clarity. The mirror remains exposed to space, since placing it in a housing like Hubble’s main mirror would trap heat. It also does not orbit the Earth, where the constant day-night cycle of every orbit would cause its own disruptive temperature changes. Rather, it is positioned 1.6 million km (one million mi.) from the planet, where it station-keeps in what’s known as a Lagrange point—a spot in space where the gravity of the Earth and the sun cancel each other out, allowing objects to circle around the invisible point as if they were orbiting a solid body like a planet.

The agency’s social media accounts are busily updating today, sharing the fruits of their labor with the world.

This is the kind of thing they’re producing on day one:

The peaks of the “mountains” seen in the nebula are about seven light-years high, per NASA.

Oh, one more thing they’ve already found:

Until now, says Time, scientists haven’t been able to get a look at exoplanets orbiting distant stars. The light from the star was simply too bright, “washing out” details of its much tinier satellites. Now we’re able to detect water in the atmosphere of a planet that’s “only” 1,150 light years away.

Just think: Some day, far in the future, Webb might even capture the long-ago destruction of the Death Star. Although I suppose it depends on how far, far away that galaxy is.

Larger versions of the images and explanations of what each shows are available on NASA’s website. Happy viewing.

You Might Like
Learn more about RevenueStripe...