Why is NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope so important?

Sometimes when the stress of life, homework, exams, or existential crisis catches up to someone, the greatest advice would be to “just look at the sky”. Because as much as it is a cliché, it is nevertheless true that we are just a speck of dust in comparison to the mighty size of the universe, which is hard to imagine, let alone comprehend its full reach. Thus, looking at the sky and letting go of the stress of an occurrence that you probably will not remember 5 years into the future can be a great strategy to gaze, and maybe even wonder about the origins of the universe.

So, if you are a space enthusiast, someone who just cares about news, an astrophysicist, or just someone who could not care less about any of these but would like to learn more about the universe you reside in; great news, because more than a week prior, groundbreaking images from James Webb Telescope images were released.

NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula Source: https://www.nasa.gov/webbfirstimages Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

After the preliminary inputs from the Hubble Space Telescope, more improvements led to the development of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This telescope was constructed with the idea of utilizing the infrared wavelength of the light spectrum. JWST’s different improvements also include a greater primary mirror that is 6.5 meters in diameter, more than thrice the Hubble Space Telescope’s. The mirror collects the light, thus making the mirrors’ areas the defining factors in how much sensitive detail can be captured. This mirror is in shapes of hexagons merged together. Because of their size, during launch, the mirrors were folded together in order to fit into the vehicle they would be launched in. The mirrors are even covered with a thin layer of gold in order to aid the reflection of infrared light (Fuge, Lauren). On top of that, to be able to actually see infrared light, the temperature needs to be stabilized. This is done with the five-layered sunshield to avoid excessive heat intake and keep the telescope at -233 °C. As well as sunlight, JWST also evades light from Earth and Moon by being located on the L2 spot that allows the telescope to face backwards (“James Webb Space Telescope, the World's New Great Space Observatory.”).

Source: https://www.esa.int/About_Us/ESAC/James_Webb_Space_Telescope_to_launch_in_October_2021

The duties of the telescope include examining exoplanets, small worlds, the outer planets, and the early universe (“James Webb Space Telescope, the World's New Great Space Observatory”). One of the most important roles this telescope will play is that it will be able to tell us about our universe’s history and show us what any other telescope could not before. While we were unable to see most things because of the dust clouds near stars and planets that are being born, with JWST, we will be able to achieve that. At infrared wavelengths inclusively, we can observe what happens after the big bang and the birth of initial stars and galaxies, or newer stars and planetary systems forming, which were obscured by dust clouds and appeared opaque in visible light (“FAQ Lite Webb Telescope/NASA.”). This will grant scientists an irreplaceable opportunity to study the history and evolution of the universe we live in.

Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, JWST images space in the infrared. This allows JWST to portray the parts of the universe we were not able to see as clearly, since the images captured with infrared will not be obstructed by dust or sorts. Let’s take a look at an image from the JWST side by side with the one from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Below, there are two images of the Southern Ring Nebula, an emission of a gas and dust cloud as a star dies in the Vela Constellation (Wikipedia). The second star of this nebula is visible in the new images from the JWST. Details such as this, that were not captured clearly in the Hubble Space Telescope, can lead to a more refined understanding of the evolution of stars and their impacts as they do so (Garner, Rob).

Image Credit: NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA) (https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_443.html)

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI Source: https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2022/nasa-s-webb-captures-dying-star-s-final-performance-in-fine-detail

Works Cited

Fuge, Lauren. “From the Vault: Why Is the James Webb Space Telescope Such a Big Deal?” Cosmos, 9 June 2022, https://cosmosmagazine.com/space/astronomy/why-james-webb-is-a-big-deal/.

“FAQ Lite Webb Telescope/NASA.” NASA, NASA, https://webb.nasa.gov/content/about/faqs/faqLite.html#:~:text=Why is Webb an infrared,forming after the Big Bang.

“James Webb Space Telescope, the World's New Great Space Observatory.” The Planetary Society, https://www.planetary.org/space-missions/james-webb-space-telescope.

Garner, Rob. “NASA's Webb Captures Dying Star's Final 'Performance' in Fine Detail.” NASA, NASA, 11 July 2022, https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2022/nasa-s-webb-captures-dying-star-s-final-performance-in-fine-detail/.

“NGC 3132.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 July 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NGC_3132.

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