A new look at the hidden depths of the universe
Published December 21, 2022
5 min read
From its perch a million miles away, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is revealing a universe that’s richer and more perplexing than astronomers previously imagined–a cosmos that largely hides behind a veil of dust. JWST is the largest space telescope in history. It captures infrared light and penetrates that veil. Less energetic than the light our eyes can see, infrared light passes more easily through cosmic dust, and the telescope’s 21-foot-wide mirror can collect this light from some of the most distant objects in the universe.
“Interstellar dust is more like smoke. It’s smaller than the dust particles on your shelf,” says Jane Rigby, the operations project scientist for JWST. “My dad’s a firefighter, so I think about it like being in a smoky room with poor visibility.”
With its infrared eye, JWST can peer through the wildfires of the universe. The telescope was launched less than a year ago, and has been fully operational for six months. It is already revealing an astonishing array of cosmic objects.
During a recent meeting at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, scientists shared some of the first results from the observatory. These included the distances to the farthest galaxies ever discovered, newly observed star clusters, and symmetric dust shells surrounding a big, blustery, star–puffs that are constantly blown out by its own particles.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s chief of science, says that watching JWST peer through cosmic dust is a bit like watching the clouds clear from atop a mountain in his native Switzerland.
” “Suddenly, the fog lifts, and your heart beats faster,” he said. It just takes your breath away. You see nature in incredible colors–and it’s more beautiful than you ever imagined.”
Other images from the space observatory capture distant and primordial parts of the cosmos, like the first publicly released image: a small patch of sky studded with countless ancient galaxies. To make that image, the telescope stared into the darkness for 12.5 hours, collecting infrared light that had been traveling through space for billions of years. The reason I was so emotional overwhelmed by it was because I realized that what I’m seeing has been there for billions of years, and yet we hadn’t seen it,” Zurbuchen said. “This is the beginning of a journey into the unknown, with a new set of eyes.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.