Light left the first stars and began a long journey through space billions of years ago, long before a swirling cloud of gas and dust coalesced to form the sun.
Since then, the light has traveled for trillions upon trillions of miles. Galaxies and their forming stars, some of which were accompanied by planets, raced by it. And on one of these, a species developed the capacity to not only speculate about what might be out there but also to create tools that allowed it to see things that its own eyes were unable to.
The most advanced and ambitious deep-space viewing device yet assembled, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, gave the world its first glimpse of that ancient light on Monday.
It shows a snapshot of deep space, with countless galaxies swirling around a central point like the light thrown off from a disco ball.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson said, If you held a grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm’s length, that is the part of the universe that you’re seeing — just one little speck of the universe.”
At a White House press conference, Nelson unveiled the photograph while being joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and President Biden.
“These images are going to remind the world that America can do big things,” Biden said. “That’s who we are as a nation.”
The Hubble Space Telescope, which revolutionized how science understood the size of the universe, is replaced by Webb. The eXtreme Deep Field, one of Hubble’s most well-known images, displays smudges of light that correspond to 5,500 galaxies, the faintest of which allow us to travel 13.2 billion years in the past.
Astronomers can focus in on the tiniest flecks in Hubble thanks to Webb. It took weeks to collect the light for the eXtreme Deep Field. After only 1212 hours of exposure, Webb produced an even sharper view of an older light source.
In the days preceding the unveiling, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said, “It’s an emotional moment when you see nature suddenly releasing some of its secrets. It’s not an image. It’s a new worldview. You’re going to see nature giving up secrets that have been there for many, many decades, centuries, millennia.”
Quite literally, Webb is able to observe distant galaxies as they appeared just a few hundred million years after the big bang. It blocks infrared light, whose wavelengths are too long for the human eye to see, from entering the atmosphere.
Webb was launched on Christmas Day from Northrop Grumman’s Space Park in Redondo Beach. L2, the second Lagrange point, or roughly 930,000 miles from Earth, was its final destination. It is one of only five locations where the sun’s and Earth’s gravitational pulls are equal, allowing Webb to maintain a constant distance from Earth.
The telescope arrived there after nearly a month of travel. Then, over the next two weeks, it deliberately and gradually came into being.
A five-layer sunshield the size of a tennis court was released by a complex system of latches, cables, and pins. Following its deployment, the telescope’s 18 hexagonal mirrors swung into position and formed a 21-foot-wide structure resembling a honeycomb. The procedure wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a “Transformers” episode. (NASA did, in fact, release a brief Webb-related video featuring Peter Cullen, the performer who provided the voice of Optimus Prime in the original 1980s animated series.)
In order to improve each mirror’s ability to reflect infrared light, 100 nanometers of gold are applied to each one. By concentrating on a star with the awkward name 2MASS J17554042+6551277, the mirrors were precisely aligned. A brilliant star appeared to emit light from six points in the test image, which was made public in March. This effect was caused by the hexagonal mirrors on the telescope.
The scientists were drawn to the background, though, which contained countless orange dots, each of which represented a galaxy that was billions of years old.
A fascinating glimpse at the telescope’s capabilities was provided.
In its decades of operation, Hubble, which was launched in 1990, has provided unmatched insight into the cosmos. Its observations have aided in the discovery of black holes, obscure moons, and exoplanets as well as the age and rate of the universe’s expansion.
However, Webb is far more powerful. Since its mirror is six times bigger than Hubble’s, it can gather much more light and view the universe as it was when it first began. It is also capable of studying infrared light to a much greater extent.
If Hubble were located there, Webb would not function. The heat and light from the Earth, moon, and sun would overwhelm the newer telescope because it is so much more sensitive. However, because of its distance, it is also too far away to be manually repaired by astronauts performing spacewalks, as Hubble has been five times since its launch.
NASA started discussing the technology that would eventually replace Hubble when it had only been in the sky for a little more than ten years. The new telescope, which bears the name of NASA’s second administrator, started construction in 2004 with a $1 billion budget and an intended launch date of 2010.
But it ended up costing $10 billion because the budget and schedule grew almost as quickly as the universe it was intended to explore.
The team had more work to do than just make sure the telescope’s components and machinery would function properly in space. Given the innovative nature of the device, they frequently had to create those materials from scratch as well.
Before being created for use on the telescope, each component, including the segmented cryogenic mirrors, the five-layer sunshield, and the infrared light-capturing microshutters, had to first be conceptualized and tested in the lab.
Budgets for other NASA projects were cut because of its spiraling costs. In 2011, a bill to completely halt the project was floated by Congress. The journal Nature cautioned in 2010 that if a risk of this magnitude failed, “the progress of astronomy could be set back by a generation.”
Jonathan Arenberg, who served as Webb’s lead engineer at Northrop Grumman from 2012 to 2017, described the moment he saw the first image as being filled with “overwhelming emotion.”
“We basically showed the world that we kept our promise,” he said. “We’ve been promising this revolutionary machine, and here it is.”
According to Charlie Atkinson, who took over for Arenberg as Webb’s chief engineer at Northrop Grumman, the emphasis has shifted from the engineering achievement of the telescope itself to the scientific endeavors it will be used for.
The telescope’s first year will see 286 research teams use it for a variety of tasks, including studying Pluto’s climate systems, a molten lava planet 200 light years away from our solar system, and the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
Atkinson declared that Webb is now “is all in the hands of scientists.”
This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
Information from Los Angeles Times was used in this report