What the Devil won't tell you
We are stardust: Webb telescope's first images a big day for UA and town surrounding it
Oh, this is what they were talking about...
When astronomers and physicists were hyping what the James Webb Space Telescope could do, we were promised more than the moon. Scientists pledged to bring us the stars, galaxies and nebulae.
And have they delivered.
The first shots of five different views of space beamed back from Webb's LaGrange Point position 900,000 miles from Earth have proven to be stunners. The images portend to a future where human knowledge of the universe exponentially increases.
It's like astronomers found the lost treasure stashed by the Knights of the Templar but are only five feet in the unsealed tomb, looking at the first handful of objects.
Tucson says "You're welcome."
The Webb scope is the University of Arizona's latest and, perhaps, biggest moment in the spotlight of the world's scientific community.
Actually, hardly any of us had anything to do with any of it. On the other hand, only 12 locals played on the court in 1997 when the Wildcats won the men's basketball championship. Yet the pueblo still rejoiced as if each of us were out there sinking foul shots against Kentucky.
UA's piece of the space telescope is at least as big as a Final Four.
Two teams of UA astronomers, lead by Marcia and George Rieke, are responsible for half the instruments the Webb is using to scan the skies. Marcia Rieke has run the Near-Infrared Camera program, while George Rieke's project was the Mid-Infrared Instrument.
Two other instruments provide the business end of Webb. There's the Near Infrared Spectrograph was built by the European Space Agency and Airbus. The Canadians built the Near-Infrared Slitless Spectrograph/Fine Guidance Sensor. I mean how hard can it be if the Canadians did it.
A rocket carrying the telescope lifted off on Christmas Day from a launchpad in French Guiana. Then the Webb spent six months getting into position, unfolding its mirrors and running tests.
Marcia Rieke posted a video in which she basically said "Huh, it's on now."
"We got a real glimpse of the power of this mission," said Rieke, who led the team developing the Near-Infrared Camera, pivotal to Webb's success. "And we are looking forward to it being in routine operation so that everyone is going to be getting their own images and their own data."
Webb's test phase is over. That thing is operational.
To the art
Let's start with something that looks familiar to Southern Arizonans.
Swear to God, the image of the Carina Nebula looks like the Santa Catalina Mountains died and went to heaven. The picture resembles a translucent brown mountain chain pitched against a star field shining through the space dust.
Called the "Cosmic Cliffs," the tallest peaks measure seven light years high. They are the cradle of star birth and the shot is from the NIRCam.
The image that really got people going was the Stephans Quintet of galaxies. It's just a stunning shot of five galaxies that will work as screensavers around planet Earth for a good long time. Remember when Jimmy Stewart looked into the sky during "It's a Wonderful Life" and saw bright "stars" in the sky? That was this galactic five-piece.
The MIRI image quality is pretty insane. It covers a slice of the sky equal to one-fifth the diameter of the Moon and contains more than 150 million pixels. It's built out of almost 1,000 separate image files.
The images they got from the MIRI scope show individual star clusters. Apparently, Hubble can't even pick out stars that well from Andromeda, the nearest galaxy to Earth at 2.5 million light years. The galaxies in this quintet range from 40 million to 290 million light years from Earth.
13 billion years ago
A side-by-side of a MIRI shot on the Left and NIRCam on the right, shows shows a deep field of galaxies. It's a similar shot to one Hubble took a few years back that set the telescope pointing at a dark spot in the sky the size of a grain of sand. Then they left the "shutter" open for a while to see if anything was actually there. What they found were galaxies on top of galaxies, reaching back more that 13 billion light years.
The four-point "diffraction spikes" are stars. The bright lights in the back are galaxies or galaxy clusters. The red dashes are dusty objects — perhaps galaxies. More research is needed.
The Southern Ring Nebula looks like a giant space beetle with a star glowing in the middle of its belly. It's taken by the NIRCam.
A second dimmer star next to it has been ejecting material the bigger brighter star has stirred into a big ball of dust. This planetary nebula is 2,500 light years away and is ripe for further study.
Oh, Canada ...
And for the final shot, Canada gave us a... spectrograph of an exoplanet... sigh.
Yes, yes ... that's very nice Canada. We're very proud of you. That little chart is so interesting and detailed showing a water water signature in the light off exoplanet Wasp 96b is so interesting and detailed. Uh-huh. We'll be sure to put your squiggly line on the refrigerator next to the images that arrest the heart.
I kid because I love. What the Canadians are doing is pretty bloody cool. They will be able to grab highly detailed spectrometry off multiple bodies at once.
The pretty pictures that make the whole world go "I wanna see! I wanna see!" also makes Webb's $10 billion price go down a lot smoother when governments of the world get their share of the bill.
The University of Arizona made those pictures possible.
With Webb, infrared is the whole ballgame. Scientists say infrared is better for research than visible light because it can pick up darker objects in the sky that are hard to see. Infrared travels with longer wavelength means it's less likely to be disrupted by cosmic dust. Finally, with infrared scientists can tell by the color which objects are moving toward and away from Earth.
Put a bow on it
This is the first week of operations for Webb and so far, it's better than good.
The space-born instrument itself is surpassing expectations, outperforming what researchers had hoped and even surviving a hit from a tiny meteor.
Here on Earth, things have been a little rockier as a push has begun to rename the telescope because Webb was a notorious homophobe. In fact, he might have driven members of the LGBTQ community out of the U.S. State Department.
Rename it. Don't rename it. Just remember that in the 1990s a majority of Americans favored purging gays from the military and up through the 2000s, that same majority wanted to ban our friends, neighbors and coworkers from the institution of marriage.
If we are going to refuse recognition to anyone who was a historical jackass, we're going to have to do a whole bunch of forgetting. We can start by burning down the Louvre.
Also, the LGBTQ community sort of skipped over the part of Webb's story where the telescope launched off a French territorial possession in South America. I'm not sure those are still OK.
At the same time, I get it. Call it the "Beyond the Rainbow Space Telescope." That name actually kind of fits because infrared is beyond the visible light spectrum and rainbows. It also trolls exactly the right (Right?) people.
Our terrestrial arguments are worth having but when looking at the newest images from the depths of space makes us all seem a little small.
And that's a good thing. The telescope is doing its job.
I got a pretty good name for a future $12 trillion telescope that can read Twitter posts over the shoulders of aliens on some planet in Capricorn. Call it "The Rieke."
Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.