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Webb images could answer our ancient questions, says Seattle astronomer

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This image released by NASA on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, shows the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth, according to NASA.
This image released by NASA on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, shows the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth, according to NASA. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI via AP) Photo Gallery

A medley of wisps and beams shining with an array of bright colors. A celestial view that looks like a rugged mountain range glowing in the evening light.

In reality, it is the edge of NGC 3324, a star-forming region thousands of light-years away, captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. It is art colliding with science.

New images released by NASA Tuesday offer the deepest and most detailed snapshot of the universe ever seen.

The telescope sits about 1.5 million miles away from Earth at a spot where the gravitational pull of the sun and Earth balances out.

To the untrained eye — that is, to most of us — the images are simply awesome. For Andy Connolly, a professor in the University of Washington’s astronomy department, they represent a “journey of 25 years,” as the first discussions of a telescope of this caliber date back to the late 1990s.

Connolly studies cosmology and runs the data management group at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, which develops tools to analyze imaging data from its telescopes.

On Tuesday, Connolly discussed the significance and meaning behind the images.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do the new images from the James Webb Space Telescope tell us?

What we’re beginning to see with these sorts of images is a view of the universe at a time when stars were first beginning to form. When the gas first collapsed and produced the stars that then began to radiate light a few 100 million years after the Big Bang. That is the potential of the JWST, to really begin to see the era of the first formation of galaxies in the universe. This is really one of the many frontiers in astronomy today that we’re beginning to probe with these new generations of telescopes and instruments.

What were your initial reactions to the images from the JWST?

It was just stunning. It was stunning what you can achieve with these incredible space telescopes. It was stunning the information that you can actually infer. In many ways, I think the images were breathtaking.

The thing that struck me the most about them was the detail. Whether we’re looking at the light from the Carina nebula, or whether we’re looking at the light from the most distant galaxies — just the level of detail that you can see.

I remember back in the ‘90s when we first saw the images coming out of Hubble and these distant galaxies that we would look at from the ground look like essentially fuzzy blobs. Suddenly, it was almost as if they came into focus so that you could see the spiral structure in galaxies that were a billion light years away.

Now with the JWST, we’re beginning to see the structure within galaxies that are 13 billion light years away. So we’re seeing the universe in some of its earliest stages, but we’re seeing it in this incredible detail.

What’s the significance of putting a telescope of this caliber into space?

The significance is, I think it begins it allows us to answer some of the questions that we’ve been posing for thousands of years.

In many ways, we probably haven’t even thought about the questions that JWST will be able to answer over the next few years. How did our universe evolve? How do stars and planets form? How unusual is the Earth relative to other planetary systems? How did we get here?

I mean, these are the kind of fundamental questions that anybody asks. If you get out into the Cascades or into the Olympics where it’s dark, and you wait for your eyes to adjust to the night sky and you look at the distribution of stars within the Milky Way … One of the first things you begin to think about is how did those stars come into being? Is there anything unusual about our planet? Are we just one of billions of planets out there?

Is there anything else you think is particularly interesting and significant about the JWST?

We’ve seen maybe the data from the first few days’ worth of observations from the JWST. If you think about the next 20 years of observations that we’re going to make — the discoveries about how planets form; whether there is evidence for signatures of life on other planets, whether it’s about how stars are born, or how stars die and the whole life cycle of stars and galaxies, or whether it’s looking at the properties of some of the most extreme events in our universe, such as the properties of black holes — I think this is really going to be transformative, and we’re just really touching the very, very surface of what we will understand.

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