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Our sky, especially its stars and planets, has long been a source of fascination, inquiry and, perhaps most important, connection. “Wish upon a star.” “Love you to the moon and back.” We have countless phrases of endearment, hope and wonder tied to the sky.
That love affair with space was taken to a new level this week with the release of images from the James Webb Space Telescope. It is hard to put into words what those images mean and inspire.
First, there is the astounding technological feat of sending a telescope, the size of a tennis court, well beyond the moon, about 1 million miles into space. The fact that the telescope can beam photos back to Earth is also amazing.
For non-scientists it can be hard to wrap our heads around the fact that the telescope is sending back images of stars and galaxies as they appeared thousands, even billions of years ago. The telescope won’t show us the Big Bang that created our universe, but it is capturing images and data that help scientists understand how it happened.
“Today, we present humanity with a groundbreaking new view of the cosmos from the James Webb Space Telescope – a view the world has never seen before,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said this week. “These images, including the deepest infrared view of our universe that has ever been taken, show us how Webb will help to uncover the answers to questions we don’t even yet know to ask; questions that will help us better understand our universe and humanity’s place within it.”
Beyond their immense scientific importance, the images are visually stunning.
The first, released Monday, showed a cluster of galaxies as it appeared billions of years ago. Subsequent images have shown the creation and death of stars.
“In my nearly four decades in the astronomy education and outreach profession I’ve never seen such stunning images as were released today by the James Webb Space Telescope,” Shawn Laatsch, director of the Versant Power Astronomy Center at the University of Maine, said after new images were shared on Tuesday. “These five exceptionally stunning images cover all areas of the cosmos and reveal new and unexpected details about the birth and death of stars, composition of exoplanet atmospheres, [and] the ways galaxies interact and the sheer number of them in our universe.”
The information from the telescope can help inform our future on Earth, Laatsch told the BDN editorial board on Tuesday. For example, learning more about how stars, like our sun, use fusion to create energy can help inform our development of cleaner energy sources.
The astronomy center, located in Orono, quickly scheduled a program to share and discuss the images on Saturday. That program is sold out, so a second program has been added. You can register for that program, to be held at 4:30 p.m. on July 16, on the center’s website.
Beyond the scientific aspects of the images – which are immense and evolving – these pictures spur thoughts about our place in the universe. The information from the Webb Telescope won’t answer the age-old question of who else is out there, but it will deepen our knowledge about life and what sustains it.
The images also remind us that we are short-lived creatures on a mere speck in a universe that is vastly larger and more complex and beautiful than we can fathom. It is humbling.