Nate St. Jean gets a look at the Ring Nebula through a Dobsonian telescope sporting a large, 15-inch mirror on Saturday, July 9, 2022, in Brunswick during a star party put on by the Southern Maine Astronomers organization. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Night sky watchers were abuzz Saturday night at the monthly Southern Maine Astronomers star party in Brunswick.

The moment they’ve been anticipating for more than 20 years is almost here.

On Tuesday morning, NASA will share the first images from its newest space-viewing apparatus, the James Webb Space Telescope. The scope is currently in orbit nearly 1 million miles from Earth and is powerful enough to look backwards, essentially through time, closer to the origins of the universe than mankind has ever gazed before.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for this — my whole life,” said astronomer Kevin Kane. “I was born in ’98, and they started building it in 2000.”

Since the Big Bang, the universe’s theoretical start, the cosmos has been expanding in every possible direction, at the speed of light. The new telescope will allow scientists and astronomers to see far enough away to almost catch up with its farthest edge. There, they hope to see the first luminous objects formed after the Big Bang as they continue to race away from us.

The Webb Telescope will also get good looks at planets outside our solar system and far-off stars just being born. The 13,000-pound apparatus was launched in a joint mission between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency last Christmas.

It was named for NASA’s second administrator, James Webb.

NASA will release the Webb Telescope’s first images Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. on their website and social media pages.

Clockwise from left: Livy Berry looks at an iron meteorite on Saturday, July 9, 2022, in Brunswick before dark star party put on by the Southern Maine Astronomers organization. Jon Wallace shows off a meteorite. Sisters Jane (left) and Julie Hummer marvel over the weight of a small iron meteorite. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Southern Maine Astronomers hold monthly public star parties on the second Saturday of each month at their headquarters in Brunswick. There, on the former U.S. Navy air base, they share an office, storage space and bathrooms with several other nonprofits.

Every party begins before dark with an astro-themed talk and slideshow. This month’s topic was — naturally — the Webb Telescope. Astronomer Ron Thompson was the speaker.

Thompson, 79, said another exciting space event led him to astronomy in 1957: The launch of the first man-made satellite, Sputnik.

“I remember laying in the grass at night, looking for it,” he said. “Of course we couldn’t see it.”

Still, it was an energizing childhood event and, later, a neighbor with a HAM radio license let him listen to the satellite’s pinging signal. From that moment on, Thompson was hooked on both astronomy and radio.

Now, the Webb Telescope, and its impending first images, are perhaps even more moving, he said.  

During his animated talk, Thompson repeated phrases such as “mind-blowing,” “amazing” and “exciting.”

When star party late-comers arrived after his talk was over, Thompson repeated it, just for them.

Jon Wallace lines his telescope up with the moon before dark at a public star party put on by the Southern Maine Astronomers in Brunswick on Saturday, July 9, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Outside, local astronomers set up more than a dozen terrestrial telescopes of all shapes and sizes, inviting the public to look through them. Some were purely optical affairs made of mirrors and glass. Other scopes were electronic in nature, with lighted screens and whirring motors. One, with a 15-inch mirror, stood over 6 feet tall.

Party-goers were treated to views of the smudgy Ring Nebula, the Hercules Cluster of galaxies and Albireo’s golden-blue double stars.

Southern Maine Astronomers President Rob Burgess said he was pleased with the turnout this month.

His organization has seen an uptick in membership since the start of the pandemic and hopes the monthly public star parties will bring in even more members. Excitement generated by the Webb Telescope won’t hurt, either.

From left: The moon shines through the eyepiece of a telescope at a Southern Maine Astronomers star party in Brunswick on Saturday, July 9, 2022. Southern Maine Astronomers President Rob Burgess searches the night sky with a large telescope. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“We’re up to almost 80 members,” Burgess said. “For years, we were at 20 or so. We got six new members just last month.”

Livy Berry, who came with her mother, aunt and grandfather while vacationing in Maine from Colorado, said she had a good time.

“Honestly, I didn’t know anything about the Webb telescope,” Berry said. “But I’m definitely going to tune in on Tuesday.”

Southern Maine Astronomers will hold their next public star party on Saturday, Aug. 13, from 8-10 p.m. Visit their website for more information.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.