A matter of the heart

Part of the Carina Nebula, as captured by the James Webb Space Telescope [NASA/ESA/CSA]

We have become so used to failure in the human journey we sometimes anticipate it before it has happened. But occasionally something comes along that cuts through the mind-boggling complexities of that journey and makes it all seem worthwhile.

The James Webb Space Telescope, launched last December, has been preparing to surprise us since January, when it reached its assigned position in space. If you imagine a line from the centre of the Sun through the centre of Earth, extending another 1.5 million km out from Earth, that’s the sweet spot where it will work until it dies, hopefully decades away.

Webb’s genesis goes back to 1996, when the project’s lead agency NASA, with European and Canadian space agencies, began early design work. This seems a long time, but it took much longer to bring the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb’s immediate predecessor, from conception in the 1960s to full functionality early this century.

Hubble was in Earth orbit and could be serviced by space shuttle; Webb is in a solar orbit beyond the reach of hands-on servicing, and had to be made operational from a distance. Its deployment and observation technologies are breathtaking, testimony to human ingenuity at its highest level.

Tasmanian astronomer Martin George has described better than I can Webb’s technical wizardry, including its ingenious mirror, six times bigger than Hubble’s, and its ability to make images of space objects billions of light years away. That is, billions of years back in time, to when our universe was young.

Webb’s high-definition images of forming stars, exoplanets and those first galaxies owe much to its ability to read faint infrared signals. To do that it must remain extremely cold (no warmer than minus 223C) indefinitely. Its five-layer sunshield prevents it from being warmed by the three dominant “local” heat sources, the Sun, Earth and Moon.

We can reasonably expect many more wondrous visions from Webb, viewed from that exceptional vantage point. It is possible that its life will be cut short by misadventure, but it’s also possible it will continue working for decades. 

The very existence of a functioning Webb telescope is a huge compliment to the nations and organisations that planned, funded and delivered it. If I lived in the US, Canada or Europe I would feel proud to have that association. But its value goes way beyond national boundaries.

Like the Rosetta Stone, whose engraved translations unlocked countless mysteries about our human past, Webb’s images will be pored over for decades, interpreted and reinterpreted in humanity’s endless quest for meaning, until new generations of imaging technology deliver yet deeper insights into the universe. That’s assuming we don’t crash and burn first.

Ever since the Hubble telescope became fully operational 20 years ago, astrophysicists have lined up to explain to the best of their considerable abilities the scientific significance of each image. Their response to the first Webb images was immediate and uniformly positive.

We learned from an image of a planet 1100 light years away that there was water in its atmosphere, and got new, enhanced views of another Milky Way object, the “Southern Ring” nebula, a vast cloud of gas around twin stars 2000 light years away. We got the clearest view yet of an interacting group of galaxies 290 million light years away called Stephan’s Quintet, and of SMACS-0723, a much-studied galaxy cluster over five billion light years away.

Then there is the nebula called Carina. The name comes from Greek mythology, the keel of Jason’s ship Argonaut. In the spirit of that great adventure, Carina encompasses an exceptionally dynamic part of the Milky Way, around 8000 light years away, where old stars are dying and new ones forming in a maelstrom of massively hot explosions and interstellar winds.

That image is a sign of more to come from the Webb telescope in the vein of “Pillars of Creation”, an eye-catching Hubble icon. Gas and dust spectacles like these are rich sources of information for astronomers, but they are even more powerful in the wider world as startling reminders of our universe’s infinite variety.

Long before the Greeks, Australia’s first people created their unique mythologies by reading this land’s spectacular night skies. Webb-Hubble observations, unhindered by our concealing atmosphere, are an opportunity to renew and enrich those ancient traditions, guided but not limited by science.

The gifts from our eyes in space are not just for science but for people everywhere to apply to their own cosmologies. When all’s said and done, they are a matter of the heart.

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