Look into the past with images from the James Webb Space Telescope

NASA recently released long-awaited images from the James Webb Space Telescope and they show off previously unseen sides of the cosmos. 

The 13.2 meter-long telescope launched in late December 2021, after more than two decades of design and construction, and it’s capable of capturing incredible photos of the cosmos. NASA released the first image from the telescope—a photo of a far off galaxy cluster—to the public on July 11, 2022.

Jeremy Heyl, a Canada Research Chair and a professor in the University of British Columbia’s department of physics and astronomy, says the telescope opens up brand new doors for scientific discovery. “We’re looking at what the universe was like a very long time ago,” he says. “So it’s absolutely an amazing capability that the Webb brings.”

The Webb is far more powerful than any of the other telescopes that have come before it, says Heyl. As light travels across the universe, it stretches and turns infrared, a process known as red-shifting. This telescope is specially designed to capture infrared light, and will allow us to view older and previously unseen objects in the universe. “The light gets stretched out from the ultraviolet into the infrared, and then the Webb is there just waiting to see it,” says Heyl. Essentially, the telescope can act as a time machine that will allow us to see ancient galaxies, witness the formation of stars, and learn more about our astronomical origins. 

“When we’re looking out at the universe, we know from looking around locally that on average, here is very similar to there,” says Heyl. “So, when we look out these large distances, we think that the place where we’re looking is very similar to where we are, but it’s in the past.”

Canada has a significant contribution to the project: Canadian scientists helped to design the telescope’s guidance system, which is critical in allowing the telescope to capture accurate images. 

What’s on the horizon?

One of the most exciting things about the telescope is that these are only the first few images released by NASA. The instrument opens up incredible scientific opportunities, and we’ll likely see many more spectacular images in the near future, says Heyl. “Tons of people have applied to get to use the Webb over the next year, and a lot of the science that they’re going to be doing is going to be absolutely incredible.” 

Heyl is set to use the telescope for his own research this month. One of his goals is to observe brown dwarfs, collapsed balls of gas that have been cooling since the beginning of the universe. (Brown dwarfs are essentially stars that didn’t have enough mass to sustain nuclear fusion and fully form—or, failed stars—and the Webb will be powerful enough to view them.) 

While the questions scientists are asking at the moment will continue to be important, Heyl also suggests that part of the excitement with the telescope is that it could unveil surprising new secrets. “Expect the unexpected,” he says. “Because we’re always discovering new things.” 

If you want to get an even better look at the images, NASA has made the full resolution versions available for download. Zoom in to take in every last detail—happy exploring!

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