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Livelihood | The Work we Love

Space just got closer

A Case-trained astronomer explains why the Webb space telescope heralds a new age of exploration.

By Christopher Carr ’19
Photos Courtsey of NASA 

On July 14, 2022, NASA astonished the world with its reveal of the first slate of full-color images from their new flagship telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. That Tuesday morning, my fellow astronomers and I gathered in our department library to witness NASA’s telecast and, over the course of an hour, we witnessed five dazzling images, each one a revelation and a wonder.

Up first, NASA unveiled Webb’s first Deep Field image of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, the deepest image ever produced by a telescope in the Infrared. Thousands of galaxies populate the image, each ranging from star-studded spiral galaxies of the nearby universe to the red specks of light emanating from nascent galaxies at the beginning of time.

Descending from the scales of galaxy clusters, we got a glimpse of what JWST will tell us about the chemical composition of planets beyond our solar system. By analyzing the light of the planet’s host star as it filters through the upper layers of the gas giant, WASP-96 b, JWST detected the telltale signs of water in the atmosphere of another planet more 1,000 lightyears from Earth.

We were then the welcoming audience to the dancing galaxies of Stephan’s Quintet, a visual gathering of five galaxies entranced in a violent clash that will teach us more about how the evolution of galaxies are deeply intertwined with their environments.

We saw in greater detail than ever before the intricate structure of the Southern Ring Nebula, the far-flung outer shell of a dead star still set ablaze by the radiance of the remnant white dwarf at its core.

And finally, the room reveled in a collective awe at the tumbling vistas of the Carina Nebula. The infrared sights of JWST allowed the telescope to pierce through the thick cliffs of dust surrounding these star-forming regions, revealing the glittered nurseries of the Galaxy’s infant stars.

The display was a triumph for NASA, ESA, and their collaborators, a living testament to the labor of thousands of scientists, engineers, and public servants extending two decades in length, from its initial blueprints in 1996 to last month’s presentation. These images make clear that JWST may more than live up to its mantle as the true successor of the Hubble Space Telescope, and that it is well-poised to become humanity’s next great spyglass to the cosmos.

High times, new discoveries

These are high times for those who have a passion for the universe, including young astronomers like myself. I received my bachelor’s degree in astronomy and physics from Case, and for the past three years I have been pursuing a doctorate in astronomy at Columbia University.

When I think of the myriad ways the James Webb Space Telescope will expand our comprehension of the universe, I find myself most excited about what will be gleaned from the formation and evolution of galaxies, and what that may mean for the history of our little corner of space, the Milky Way galaxy.

JWST’s massive 6.5-meter diameter telescope will allow us to observe luminous objects billions of lightyears away, and due to the finite speed of light, some of the light that reaches our telescope will have been emitted from galaxies billions of years ago. This means that we will not only be able to observe the galaxies nearby as they are, but also the light of primordial galaxies as they were in the early years of the universe.

This has already proven true, as JWST has discovered almost a dozen potential galaxy candidates, some displaying astoundingly developed structure mere hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang.

There’s no telling which great truths of old JWST will throw to the wayside, which questions will finally be answered, or which ones are looming out there in the depths of space waiting to be asked. These are Promethean times for the field of astronomy, and despite the uncertainties of the future, I am confident that I and the hundreds of young astronomers like me will be ready to seize the fire.

Chris Carr earned his bachelor’s degree in astronomy and physics from the College of Arts and Sciences at CWRU and hosted the science radio show, “Enter Galactic,” on campus radio station WRUW-FM 91.1.

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