On Tuesday, July 12, 2022 pioneers at NASA unveiled corners of the universe that seemed unreachable only a few years prior. NASA used the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to obtain pictures of the earliest galaxies we’ve seen thus far. JWST uses infrared light waves to capture images from up to 13.6 billion light years away

Image of Stephan’s Quintet captured by the James Webb Space Telescope from NASA’s website

JWST first delivered four pictures to us. These consisted of galaxies interacting with each other, stars being born, and most importantly, the earliest galaxy we’ve ever been able to see. 

While pictures from the depth of space may be enough to captivate many people, there may be those who question the importance of these pictures, and above all, the $10.8 billion budget.

These images are critical to our understanding of not only the universe, but of ourselves. 

While the concept of the Big Bang is largely considered to be the way the universe came to be, there isn’t enough tangible proof for this to be considered anything other than a theory.  By plunging deeper into space, we could one day see the light from the Big Bang.

According to a Q&A with Dr. John Mather, the Senior Project Scientist for JWST, the Big Bang would have “happened everywhere at once and was a process happening in time, not a point in time.” Evidence for this includes galaxies moving away from each other, not from a central point, and “…we see the heat that was left over from early times, and that heat uniformly fills the universe.”

Image of a cartwheel galaxy captured by the James Webb Space Telescope from NASA’s website

According to the same Q&A, JWST was designed – not to see the beginnings of the universe quite yet – but to see a period of the universe’ history that has not been seen before; one where we can see the first objects formed while the universe cooled down after the Big Bang.

Stephan’s Quintet, notable for its appearance in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was captured again by JWST but this time with infrared light and is its largest image gathered. Due to the size of this image, it contains a great amount of astronomical phenomena including young stars, starburst regions, and gravitational interactions of galaxies. The dust and gas tails of these galaxies are being pulled in different ways due to the gravitational pull of the galaxies in close proximity to each other. But most interesting is the effect that galaxy NGC 7318B has on the quintet as it crashes through the others. Due to the different gravitational forces in place, NGC 7318B distorts the surrounding galaxies causing the dust tails to twist in odd ways. This is an extremely rare occurrence that we’ve finally been able to observe.

Being able to observe all of these different aspects of our universe is critical to us understanding the greatest mysteries of space, and allows us to enter into a new age of scientific exploration.

JWST captured an image of a galaxy cluster, SMACS 0723, which contains light captured from up to 13.1 billion light years away. The most noticeable part of this image though is that it seems the stars and galaxies are bending in ways that aren’t seen in any other images. This isn’t an error in the technology, but actually an intentional use of what many astronomers refer to as “natural telescopes.” 

When there’s something that has a significant amount of gravitational pull such as a large galaxy it creates this natural telescope by pulling in light from behind it and wrapping it around the gravitational field. By pointing JWST at a natural telescope, we’re able to obtain these images from deep space. JWST is constantly delivering new pictures and information and still will for the next decade. 

Image of galaxy cluster, SMACS 0723, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope from NASA’s website

On August 2, 2022 it captured an image of a cartwheel galaxy in the process of its formation. This galaxy is believed to have a similar formation process as our own. By using the tools on JWST, we can see older wavelengths of light and see the way this galaxy began to form, allowing us to form a more accurate theory of the formation of our galaxy. 

With this telescope being able to see up to 13.6 billion light years away, we come closer to seeing the most crucial parts of our history, including the Big Bang.

If we one day are able to develop a telescope that can see up to 46.1 billion light years we’ll be able to observe the beginning of our universe, changing our entire perspective of the world.

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