Why the James Webb Space Telescope Photos Are So Important
Yout’s no easy feat to get much of the the population of the world to pay attention to the same thing on the same day at the same moment. We are estimated to number 7.5 billion people, spread across 7 continents and 195 countries. Even a fraction of the 7.5 billion people on Earth is capable of paying attention to you. Truth be told NASA did not see all of humanity in the same light on Tuesday July 12. It did have a lot of us. That’s because it was on that day that the space agency revealed the first clutch of images from the James Webb Space Telescope, a cosmic observatory parked at a spot in the void 1.6 million km (1 million mi.) Earth.
Webb is an extreme machine. It was extremely expensive for one thing—setting NASA back a cool $10 billion. It is extremely cold for another—its main mirror chilled down to -223º C (-370º F), the better to detect the faint infrared signals coming to it from deep space and translate that energy to images. It is extremely precise too—the 18 segments of its 6.5 m (21 ft., 4 in.) Mirror can be adjusted to the billionth of an inch, or nanometers, to sharpen it.
Learn more Space: What do these James Webb Telescope Images Look Like?
However, the machine proved to be extremely beautiful. The pictures it returned were by any measure dazzling—the 7-light-year high dust pillars of the Carina Nebula, 7,600 light years from Earth; SMACS 0723, a deep field view of a massive cluster of galaxies, some of them 13.1 billion light years distant; the Southern Ring Nebula, an expanding cloud of gas nearly half a light year wide surrounding a pair of dying stars, 2,000 light years away from us; and more.
“Every image is a new discovery and each will give humanity a view of the universe that we’ve never seen before,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, in a gathering at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., shortly before the pictures were revealed.
“Looking at this image for five minutes and then walking out of my job,” tweeted @sydbricksAbove, a post with the SMACS0723 image.
The little-known is sometimes the best. @sydbricks—one of the uncounted millions worldwide who tuned in to follow the release of the images—nailed the sentiment better than the famous Nelson. The administrator was right that the pictures give us an image of our universe that we’ve never seen before. But it’s what we do with that experience that matters more. Are you ready to quit your job? Not necessarily a good—or presumably serious—suggestion. Looking at our galaxy, our world, and our job in a different way should help us see it as a small part of the vastness that is the universe. You can do that.
Webb will still have 25 years left before it exhausts its maneuvering fuel. Then it will retire around 2047. Webb will be returning thousands of images over that period, some even more impressive than those shown this week. But it is that first tiny handful of pictures—and the new sense they give us of our place in the cosmos—that will have changed us the most.
The original version of this story appeared in TIME Space. This weekly newsletter covers all things space. Register here.
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