In Japanese, the word “yūgen” attempts to define the profound and mysterious mood stirred by the beauty of the universe.
People around the globe swooned with that sense of cosmic vertigo on Tuesday when NASA released the first images from the newly-launched, long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope. Even scientists who have devoted their careers to studying the cosmos seemed momentarily stunned.
“When I saw some of the images today, I honestly felt like crying. And I can’t even explain why,” said Sara Seager, an astronomer and planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The presenters on the somewhat glitchy live broadcast from NASA seemed in awe of the images they introduced. “I’m beyond stoked to be sharing this with you,” said Dr. Nestor Espinoza, describing atmospheric data from a distant planet. The assembled astronomers watching along at Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute ooh’d and aah’d, gasped and clapped.
The five images — one released by President Biden on Monday and the rest showcased by NASA on Tuesday — document astonishing astronomical scenes from the universe and provide the first glimpse into the myriad capabilities of the much-anticipated telescope.
“I’ve been waiting for Webb to sort of get its act together for 30 years. And there were a lot of times when I figured it would never happen,” said John McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “But I’ve got to give them credit. They pulled it together and they’ve got a beautiful instrument. A real Swiss-army knife.”
One image, titled SMACS 0723, revealed the deepest and sharpest image of the distant universe to date. The scintillating mosaic overflows with orange, blue, and white flecks that include glimpses into a galaxy cluster as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. Webb can see much farther than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. And because light travels at a constant speed, seeing farther means looking further back in time.
A video posted on Twitter by Alyssa Goodman, professor of applied astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, put the innovation in perspective by comparing an older image of the SMACS 0723 area to Webb’s latest snapshot, taken by the telescope in just 12-and-a-half hours.
“A very blurry hint of something — nothing like what you see from this incredible image,” she says while toggling from the old image to the new.
Here's a 1-minute video showing--in the words of visualization hero @EdwardTufte--the "compared to what" factor for today's amazing @NASAWebb image. Thanks to the @WWTelescope for making this possible, and @ADavidWeigel. I only wish @NASA and @POTUS had shown the image this way! https://t.co/ThqLJqCUMa pic.twitter.com/4Yd6CIRcst— Alyssa A. Goodman (@AlyssaAGoodman) July 12, 2022
The Carina Nebula exhibited a similar grandeur. The image looks like a Van Gogh rendering of craggy orange mountains on a moonlit starry night. In reality, it is the edge of a turbulent cloud of gas and dust thousands of lightyears away, which serves as the crib and crypt for many of the brightest stars of the Milky Way. Unlike Hubble, which has documented the nebula before, the Webb telescope employs infrared radiation that can penetrate dust and create never-before-seen images of the stars within the cloud.
But perhaps the image that showcases Webb’s greatest triumph was the unassuming WASP-96 b, squiggles and dots on a graph that document the atmospheric conditions of “hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-96 b.” The telescope measured light from the planet’s solar system over just 6.4 hours and found evidence of water vapor, hazes, and some previously unseen clouds.
For Seager, the MIT astronomer who developed the equation used to create the WASP-96b graph, this speedy, in-depth analysis of exoplanets generates the most excitement — and consternation. Because so many scientists are angling to get research time on Webb, she will have to wait until next July to peer into TRAPPIST-1e, the exoplanet she and her team has been assigned that is widely considered to be potentially Earth-like and habitable.
Seager’s research will be one of many efforts to reveal whether some promising exoplanets harbor atmospheres that might support life.
The images — and the discoveries they predict — are the fruit of a decades-long project plagued by delays and cost overruns. An independent review of the program ordered by Congress in 2010 discovered a mess of mismanagement and oversight issues. Some lawmakers proposed a bill to cancel the project entirely. NASA vowed to make amends and completed construction in 2016, but then a series of human errors further jeopardized the project. Finally, after several launch delays, Webb and its 18 gold-plated mirrors hurdled into orbit on Christmas Day of 2021.
And to nearly everyone’s surprise, the telescope has worked flawlessly since, a rarity in an era when just about everything — from airline travel to the baby formula market — seems broken.
“To date, this is really an engineering feat. Now comes the science part. But the people we should be bowing down to are those that made this thing and made it work so seamlessly,” Goodman said.
In a press conference Tuesday, Jane Rigby, the Webb operations project scientist, admitted she “went and had an ugly cry” when the early data revealed just how well the telescope worked.
“We live in a time where we’re used to instantaneous feedback. Everything has to happen quickly. Otherwise, it becomes secondary and unworthy of money and attention,” said Mercedes Lopez-Morales, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“Webb is an example of patience and perseverance. It was a little bit frustrating to watch. But I think now, everybody has stepped back and said, ‘You know, that was worth it.’”
Astrophysics and astronomy are fields constantly seeking to answer questions of infinite doubt: Where do we come from? Are we alone? What happens next? The Webb telescope — with its speed, detail, and infrared capabilities — will play a crucial role in the quest to answer such inquiries.
But the fields also sometimes raise the question of so what?
“I’m not going to say that people shouldn’t be cynical at a time when gas prices are soaring and Ukraine is in shambles. But let this give people a little hope,” Lopez-Morales said. “We humans can’t necessarily disconnect from the day to day but we can think of more than one thing at the same time. Here, we can realize that there is occasional good.”
The first tranche of data from Webb will be made available on Thursday to select scientists who collaborated in the telescope’s development. The sets will include information from and images of distant galaxies that are even older than the 4.6 billion-year-old one President Biden showed Monday in SMACS 0723.
As Goodman said, “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”