- Questions about the presence of life outside of our galaxy will still remain the fascination of many, but astronomers now have the opportunity to peer closer at what surrounds us in the great unknown
Stargazers across the world are in for decades of treats after NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) released the first images generated using data attained from the James Webb Space Telescope.
The telescope is the largest optical telescope in space at the moment and was designed to primarily conduct infrared astronomy. Following its launch on Christmas Day in 2021, it took astronomers at the space agency and their colleagues across the world some time to ensure that they were reading and analysing the data correctly prior to alerting the general public of the latest development in space exploration.
Abbreviated to the JWST, the new player weighs in at a hefty budget of USD9.7 billion, according to NASA – a far leap from the originally estimated USD1 billion at its inception. This investment has, however, been stretched out over a span of time and achieved through collaborative contributions with USD810 million coming from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) contributing USD160 million. Responding to the telescope’s role in demystifying some of humanity’s extra-terrestrial enquiries, Jessie Christiansen, Project Scientist at the NASA Exoplanet Archive, said the investment is necessary because “the deeper we can look into the detail of the universe around us, the closer we get to the answers to those questions.”
The telescope was sent out 1.5 million kilometres from Earth to orbit around the sun. At this distance, many astronomers are hopeful that it could allow humanity to look into the multitudes of galaxies that have proliferated since the beginning of the universe. Some of the images that have already been generated include those of the Carina Nebula – home to the Keyhole Nebula and the active, unstable supergiant star called Eta Carinae; Stephan’s Quintet – a visual grouping of five galaxies; and the Southern Ring Nebula which lies approximately 2,500 lightyears away.
What differentiates the JWST from its predecessor, the Hubble Telescope that provided many of the working data for astronomers, is that it has a larger 6.5 metre mirror made of 18 hexagonal segments to reflect the sun’s rays, thus allowing it to detect infrared light more precisely. While data gathered from the telescope can be translated into visual images, the telescope captures light beyond what the human eye can detect. It is through these infrared data points that JWST has been able to detect the presence of methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and water in the form of gas in the outer reaches of the universe. While questions about the presence of life outside of our galaxy will still remain the fascination of many, the JWST is providing astronomers the opportunity to peer closer at what surrounds us in the great unknown. The future of stargazing has a new agent and it seems to have hit the proverbial ground running.