“Wow!” says Papa. “It’s just like an Old Bear Truck TV show.
“You may look around,” says the guide. “But do not touch anything."
from The Berenstain Bears Blast Off
written and illustrated by Michael Berenstain
Harper Collins Publishers, 2023
accessed on YouTube 1/7/24
It seems like by now we should all be used to the images we receive from the James Webb space telescope. It’s been transmitting photos of object in outer space since July 12, 2022. But how can we accustom ourselves to the spectacular? the exquisite? the phenomenal universe? Until a year an a half ago, it was all invisible.
In 1996, a committee called Hubble Space Telescope (HST) & Beyond suggested a project to create a larger, infrared-sensitive telescope that could “see through” the visible debris and clouds of dust shed by newly forming stars. Like ultraviolet rays, infrared rays illuminate what is invisible to our human eyes.
At a cost of $10 billion dollars, NASA collaborated with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to develop what became the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
Hubble and Webb both use light rays beyond the spectrum visible to humans. Remember Roy G. Biv? Colors we’ve named Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet are the only the part of light’s spectrum we can see. Red light waves are the longest and slowest moving visible waves. Violet waves are the shortest and fastest. Waves longer and slower than red are infrared. Waves that are shorter and faster than violet are ultraviolet.
So I wondered how can we see images that Webb is sending to us if the light waves are invisible to us? Now I wonder if I can explain it!
Here’s my oversimplification.
An electromagnetic wave is made of changing electric and magnetic fields. This is how energy is transported in our world. Light waves are made of photons, particles that carry energy. Light waves are transmitted, reflected, absorbed, refracted, polarized, diffracted, or scattered depending on what the object they encounter is made of. Light waves bumping into a tree, for example, bounce off the tree and reflect waves we perceive as various shades of brown and gray in all their variations.
Data from beyond the visible spectrum are collected by satellites and space telescopes. They are stored and then converted into images we can see by using the amount of heat they generate. To photograph infrared (IR) light, you need a special filter on your camera that blocks out light waves in the visible spectrum. The resulting photographs are the extraordinary ones that James Webb is sending us.
Its cameras photograph the invisible.
Because NASA’s entire website is in the public domain, all its images and all its content are available to everyone. It’s remarkable. Here's the link to the James Webb photos including the most recent one dated 1/3/22.
Try this image of a nebula. You can zoom in and out to get the feeling of being in outer space. Here's one of some galaxies.
Some people still question the purpose of space exploration.
In an article that explains why humans need space exploration, the authors remind us that we need “tinkerers, engineers, and scientists.” It goes on to say “people explore to learn about the world around them, find new resources, and improve their existence.”
Through scientific exploration, NASA can “explore the secrets of the universe.”
Over 50 years ago, NASA was created with the mission to begin finding answers for some of life’s most basic questions. Why are we here? How did life begin? Can we find life elsewhere in our own galaxy or beyond? How can we make our lives better?
The International Space Station (ISS) connects people from many countries who work together. Even if no discoveries were made, even if no research proved beneficial, even if no new technology was developed, nations across our whole world are working together to benefit us all.
Since its cooperatively built beginning, the ISS maintains a full-time crew of six people whose current study is microgravity. Their research has been applied here on Earth to improve medical devices. Data the ISS has sent back to Earth is used by engineers and city planners to find ways to increase the absorption of heat hitting city surfaces and help farmers water their fields more efficiently.
By studying the world around us, we learned how hurricanes form. We can discover resources on the moon, or Mars, or on another planet in another galaxy. We can find out the medical implications of the weightlessness of space on humans, other animals, and plants.
The James Webb Space Telescope has provided opportunities for scientists to invent new technology and astrophysicists to begin to learn how our world came to be, how it is evolving, and how we can anticipate, cope, adapt to inevitable changes.
A tennis court sized sunshield on the telescope reduces by more than a million times the amount of heat absorbed from the sun. The technology was developed to prevent the force of the sun’s heat from destroying the telescope. Can the same technology be applied to our oceans’ coral reefs?
Eighteen mirror segments work as a single giant mirror to perfectly reflect images to 1/10,000th the thickness of a human hair. Could the same tech be used (on a much smaller scale) in a microscope to discover the workings of viruses and other germs?
Photos of the birth of a star will not allow us to start over on this satellite of our own sun we call Earth, but scientific discoveries, continued cooperation with people across the globe, and insights into the vastness of our universe in time and space will help provide a perspective we can all live with for a long, long time.
I just started reading Daisy Darkly by Alice Feeney (Flatiron Books, 2022). I don’t usually pick up murder mysteries, but it’s my daughter’s January book club selection. I’m reading out of my comfort zone, but so far, the characters are relatable, the setting is realistic, the plot seems plausible. So till next week, I’ll keep reading!
Be curious! (and wish on a star)