The reactions of NASA astrophysicists and engineers to the first images from the revolutionary James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) go well beyond the thrill of new knowledge.
The images “moved me, as a scientist, as an engineer, and as a human being,” said NASA deputy administrator and former astronaut Pamela Melroy.
Thomas Zurbuchen, leader of NASA’s scientific programs, said during a Wednesday news conference he was nearly moved to tears by what he saw.
“It’s really hard to not look at the universe in a new light and not just have a moment that is deeply personal,” Zurbuchen said. “It’s an emotional moment when you see nature suddenly releasing some of its secrets. And I would like you to imagine and look forward to that.”
The initial images will be released to the public on July 12.
What is special about the JWST?
1. It is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble space telescope, due in part to a much larger mirror capable of looking far deeper into space.
2. JWST will get us closer to viewing the beginning of the universe than ever before. Though light from galaxies visible through powerful ground telescopes may be measured in millions of light years, this represents an insufficient amount of elapsed time to demonstrate stellar or galactic evolution—the equivalent of looking at humans a few centuries ago for evidence of biological evolution. JWST increases the depth of our reach by orders of magnitude—like looking back to the origins of multicellular life. For the study of galactic evolution, “We want to see babies,” says astrophysicist Blake Bullock. But it’s likely to be a brutal nursery, with nascent galaxies colliding and merging in a chaotic scrum.
3. The telescope’s infrared instrumentation will allow us to pierce the veil of dust that obscures much of the early universe, as well as investigating the nature of the dark matter that makes up the lion’s share of matter in the universe and dark energy that drives its expansion. The search for earth-like exoplanets will also constitute a significant part of the JWST mission.
4. In the same way military technology often fueled civilian applications, the JWST has already catalyzed major technological leaps, from space systems deployment to procedures for eye surgery.
5. It will provide an earthquake of perspective—if we pay attention. Copernicus’s heliocentrism, Darwin’s evolution by natural selection, Lyell’s expansion of the history of Earth, and Hubble’s confirmation of galaxies beyond our own each shook our perspective and our sense of ourselves. The revelations of the James Webb Space Telescope have the potential to join these humbling insights in the evolution of our self-understanding.