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By Bill Hoagland
In mid-June, I marked my calendar for July 12 because that was the date when NASA intended to release the first official images obtained through the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). And when July 12 rolled around, we were not disappointed. People were taken back by the raw beauty of these images even without knowing what exactly they were seeing. But beyond that, once you were given an explanation as to what you were seeing, it became even more spectacular.
The first released images explored five separate and distinct cosmic targets so as to give us a better idea of just how versatile the JWST is. These targets that we saw are as follows: “SMACS 0723 Deep Field” gives us our first glimpse of the deepest view of our universe we have ever had– a cluster of galaxies more than 13 billion years old, with some evidence that oxygen existed even then. Next, “Exoplanet WASP 96b” shows us how JWST can determine the atmospheric makeup of an exoplanet as it revolves around a star.
This ability to discern the atmospheric makeup of exoplanets might someday tell us which of the 5,000 known exoplanets might support life as we know it. Then we have the “Southern Ring Nebula,” which shows what happens as a star is running out of fuel and dying. Next is the “Stephan’s Quintet Galaxy Cluster,” which shows five galaxies colliding and interacting, with what is believed to be an active black hole in the middle of these colliding galaxies. And finally, we have the Carina Nebula, located in our own galaxy, in which we can see how cosmic gas and dust eventually come together to form new stars, the Carina Nebula fittingly being referred to as the “star nursery” where you can actually see baby stars in the “nursery”.
As breathtaking as these images were, I was even more impressed with the reactions of the astrophysicists who were also viewing these images for the first time, such as Dr. Becky Smethurst, of the University of Oxford, whose classic, emotional reaction you can find on YouTube. Some of the astrophysicists and other scientists had tears of joy as they watched the images on the screen. And why not have tears of joy? It took 20 years and over 20,000 scientists from around the world to put the JWST where it is today, and despite the risks and some detractors, most of us view this as a complete, feel-good success.
And the nicest thing of all is that, with the study of our universe available via the Hubble Telescope and now the JWST, you can truly immerse yourself in a subject that is far removed from all the divisive issues we continue to have here on this planet. There are blue planets and red planets out there in the universe, but it is not because those planets voted Democrat or Republican. There are no politics in the cosmos and let’s hope it stays that way.
■ Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at email@example.com.