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James Webb Space Telescope
Deep Field / James Webb Space Telescope

Plumbing the depths of space and time

The first set of photographs from the James Webb Space Telescope opens up new horizons in space, and delves into the history of our universe like no instrument has been able to do till date.

As I gazed at the Milky Way on a crisp night in Ladakh for the first time, a dual sensation of wonder and bewilderment pervaded me. Wonder at the new vistas opening up that I had only read about (the typewritten description of its beauty had given me the knowledge of its existence but seeing it gave a new dimension that had been missing till then). And bewilderment at how little I saw when I had looked up at the same night sky from my metropolitan balcony in Kolkata. The images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope invoke a similar duality of feeling.

“Reminiscent of Vermeer, but carrying news of the origins of the universe, the photos are just the beginning,” extolls an article in the New Yorker, referring to the images captured by the telescope on July 12, later adding, “The sharpness and clarity might make you think of Vermeer—what is being painted is light.” And indeed, the five images that have been released by NASA take the painting-like pastel imagery of the space photographs of yore into today’s era of vibrant 5D and sharp realism.

James Webb Space Telescope
Galaxies Forming / James Webb Space Telescope

The deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe till date has been captured by the telescope. Referred to as Webb’s First Deep Field, the image captures a galaxy cluster in stunning detail. Thousands of galaxies bend together through centrifugal force. Just like a child beholding the mysteries of the Milky Way for the first time, the longer one looks at the photograph, the more the tiniest of details reveal themselves. “This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground,” mentions a NASA article, once again bringing into perspective the infinite scale of the depths of space that we are yet to plumb.

Each of the five images captured by the telescope casts the universe in a new light. The image of dying star radiating energy shows it being shrouded in stardust as it has been sending out rings of gas for millennia, perhaps even more brilliant in the light years that comprise its dying moments than it had ever been in its blue-tinted youth. A crystal-clear glimpse at the Carnia Nebula shows star-births that were invisible on earlier telescopes. A new glimpse at the Stephan’s Quintet, made immortal by the classic Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life, provides insights into how galaxies formed and evolved in the early universe. One of the NASA scientists who presented these stunning images aptly referred to them as easter eggs.

James Webb Space Telescope
Star Forming, Region: Carina Nircam / James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope has been designed to see the infrared part of the spectrum, making it capable of glimpsing “galaxies far far away”. This provides access to a part of the spectrum that no telescope has had till date, not even the iconic Hubble Telescope, which can see ultraviolet and visible light. Located over a million miles further away from the sun than the earth, the images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope will also be free from interference by the earth’s atmosphere and weather. With its larger mirror, this telescope has the capacity to see light-years into the past—13.7 billion years to be exact — to nearly the beginning of the universe itself.

When H.G. Wells had written The Time Machine, this was perhaps not the kind of time travel that he had imagined; the kind that allows one to look eons into the past at the beginning of creation itself through the power of a single photograph. Photographs have always had the power to capture memories and keep them intact for posterity. In that sense, they defy the laws of time, freezing moments with the help of light and ingenuity. Now, the James Webb Space Telescope takes this to the next level as it captures images from a past so distant that none would have been there to photograph it. And yet, the images are captured very much in the present. While looking at the stars and astrophotography has always been a way to look into and capture the past, never before has it had this tremendous a scope.

As Rivka Galchen aptly says in the New Yorker article, “There’s something vertiginous and confusing about taking one’s life seriously, until a new sense of scale alters that perspective.”

By Dyuti Basu Published on August 1, 2022


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