A composite image of the Cosmic Cliffs in the Carina Nebula with the James Webb Space Telescope | NASA, ESA, CSA and STScl
A composite image of the Cosmic Cliffs in the Carina Nebula with the James Webb Space Telescope | NASA, ESA, CSA and STScl

Our world is facing a number of crises these days. There is an ongoing global pandemic, drou­ghts, wildfires and floods induced by climate change, and food and energy shortages spurred by war. Just in the past few months, Pakistan itself has seen political turmoil, record-high temperatures and devast­ating mon­soons.

In the middle of all this, many of the inhabitants of the planet were transfixed when the first few images were released from a telescope located roughly 1.5 million kilometres from Earth.

The images by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) showed a range of cosmic objects — from gas and clouds forming new stars, to galaxies containing hundreds of billions of stars colliding with each other.

An engineering marvel, the telescope is expected to revolutionise astronomy in the coming years. It is designed and built by The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). But how should the rest of the world see this achievement at this point in time? Do we have to be professional astronomers to appreciate this scientific breakthrough? Although Pakistan has a thriving amateur astronomy scene, professional astronomy is largely missing. But I think we can take pride in the telescope as members of the human species.

The remarkable first photos by the incredible James Webb Space Telescope reveal hitherto unseen aspects of the universe and are the result of the best of our species’ efforts

In fact, the very first image from the telescope, released to the public, mocks our disputes over territories and claims of superiority based on skin colour, ethnicity or cultural history.

This first image is that of a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723. The picture covers a tiny portion of the sky. As one of the NASA astronomers introducing the image explained, it covers the same amount of sky as a dust grain held up at an arm’s length. We see this tiny patch of sky full of seemingly unremarkable smudges. However, each smudge is a galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars and probably trillions of planets. We are seeing close to a thousand galaxies in this image!

Some of the galaxies in this picture are so far away that their light, travelling at an immense speed of 300,000 km/second, has still taken 13 billion years to reach us. One red smudge has already been identified to be located at 13.1 billion light-years from us (a light-year is a unit of distance and equals the distance light travels in one year). The light from this galaxy started its journey when the universe was only 700 million years old. We don’t know the state of this galaxy today, but it brings us precious news of a very young universe.

The first publicly released image from Nasa’s JWST is the deepest infrared view of the universe to date | NASA, JWST
The first publicly released image from Nasa’s JWST is the deepest infrared view of the universe to date | NASA, JWST

What is incredible is that the James Webb Space Telescope not only has the ability to find these far-away galaxies, but it can also tell us what these galaxies are made up of. The red smudge, for example, contains not just hydrogen, but also elements like oxygen and neon. This tells us that there must be younger galaxies out there, where the stars are made up of just primordial hydrogen and helium, and have not had the time to process more complex elements like oxygen and neon.

This kind of measurement is unprecedented! And this is just the beginning. This image was taken to show the potential of a telescope that is just beginning its work.

The telescope may have cost $10 billion over 25 years (still a modest amount compared to defence expenditures of countries like the United States) but the perspective it provides is invaluable.

We live in the Milky Way galaxy which contains more than 200 billion stars (The Milky Way would also appear as a smudge to inhabitants in a galaxy billions of light-years from us). Our Sun is just one of these stars. The Earth, with all its challenges, is only one of the trillion planets estimated to be in the Milky Way galaxy.

With this cosmic perspective, isn’t it incredible that some members of our species, on this rocky planet, have figured out a way to make an incredible telescope that can tell us about some of the very first galaxies in the entire universe?

Humans are indeed capable of doing terrible things as well. However, an effort like the James Webb Space Telescope represents some of its best. At least briefly, I’m proud to be a part of ‘Team Human’.

The writer is Professor of Integrated Science & Humanities at Hampshire College, US. He is also an astronomer affiliated with the Five College Astronomy Department (FCAD) in Massachusetts and hosts a YouTube channel, Kainaat Astronomy in Urdu

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 24th, 2022

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