BYU astronomy professor discusses the development of space tech after NASA released James Webb Space Telescope images

The James Webb Space Telescope took a new photo of the Pillars of Creation. Photos of space have gotten better as space technology has progressed. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

The new James Webb Space Telescope’s image of the Pillars of Creation, released July 11, sparked new interest in the development of space technology from the public, according to BYU physics and astronomy professor, Benjamin Boizelle.

“The attention James Webb has received has made the advances we’re making in this golden age of astronomy very public,” Boizelle said. “Strap in for quite an amazing ride.”

NASA said the Pillars of Creation are three-dimensional pillars that are made up of interstellar gas and dust that can appear semi-transparent in near-infrared light. 

NASA said these pillars are where new stars, the bright red orbs at the edge of the pillars, are forming within dense clouds of gas and dust. 

Boizelle said the dust and gas in space is cold and blocks the light that would otherwise make it to us. In some of the star-forming regions at the center of large galaxies, scientists have been unable to observe objects that are at a distance or are covered by this gas and dust.

“Webb allows us to peer through and see the actual cores of protostars, to look at nebula, see young stars that have formed that were previously hidden and will allow us to view some of the earliest galaxies perhaps only a few hundred million years after the bang,” Boizelle said.

The first image of the Pillars of Creation was taken by Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, according to NASA, but has been retaken by the James Webb Space Telescope in 2014. 

The 1995 photo of the Pillars of Creation beside the 2014 photo.The latest photo, taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, allows us to see through more of the dust and gives a better image of the red stars that are forming. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

NASA’s comparison of the Webb vs Hubble Telescope, explained that while the Webb Telescope is sometimes called the replacement of the Hubble, they consider it a scientific successor because its goals were motivated by the Hubble’s results.

“Hubble’s technology was put up into space and its last servicing mission was back in 2009, whereas James Webb has had the benefit of additional time to prepare and develop its technology,” Boizelle said. “It has better sensitivity, different wavelength range, and can look at more targets at the same time.”

One big difference between the two is how much larger the mirror on the Webb is than on the Hubble, according to NASA. It explained that the larger light means it can see farther back in time than the Hubble can.

A video compares the overall size comparison between the Webb and Hubble Telescopes. The Webb’s larger mirror is one example of space tech improvement that has changed our capabilities. (Video courtesy of GSFC)

“Webb will primarily look at the Universe in the infrared, while Hubble studies it primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths, though it has some infrared capability,” NASA’s comparison said. 

Boizelle explained that in the past, a lot of astronomy that was done in the same wavelength as Webb could only be done for a short time because they were only able to take a few minutes of data. That data was old and had such poor resolution that scientists could not actually get any detailed comparison to understand the difference in light.

“Webb will compliment the ongoing work of Hubble and will provide a new window that had only been seen in small portions before,” Boizelle said.

The Webb vs Hubble Telescope comparison also explained that the Webb can see more distant and highly redshifted objects because it is an infrared telescope and will orbit 1.5 million kilometers away from the earth while the Hubble orbits much closer to the earth.

Two photos of the Carina Nebula in visible light and infrared that were taken by the Hubble Telescope. These images show the difference between what you can see with an infrared telescope compared to without infrared technology. (Photo courtesy of NASA)
An animation shows the Webb’s orbit through space. Webb orbits the Sun 1.5 million kilometers away from earth at the second Lagrange point, L2. (Video courtesy of NASA-GSFC)

The Webb Telescope is not the first infrared telescope though, according to NASA’s comparison. It describes the Herschel Space Observatory, which was an infrared telescope built by the European Space Agency which also orbited where Webb will be.

Raymond Kelly is a sophomore at BYU studying physics and astronomy who helps run the BYU Royden G. Derrick Planetarium. Kelly is also a member of the BYU Astronomical Society.

“Webb is actually in orbit around the Sun, around Earth’s second Lagrange point, or out past the earth at the exact spot where the earth’s gravity pulls it along,” Kelly said. “That means Webb doesn’t have to deal with day and night because it can keep the same side facing the sun at all times, which allows Webb to have a shade to keep itself cool.”

Kelly said Webb can operate at the second Lagrange point because it has detectors at very cold temperatures approaching absolute zero so it can take clear pictures in the infrared.

An infrared photo the Herschel took of the Andomeda Galaxy with an X-ray image superpoesd over it. While Webb was not the first infrared telescope, it does have the highest sensitivity in the near-IR. (Photo courtesy of ESA)

NASA explained that the main difference between the two telescopes is that Webb has a wavelength range from 0.6 to 28.5 microns while Herschel’s wavelength range was from 60 to 500 microns.

“Herschel looked for the extremes, the most actively star-forming galaxies, which emit most of their energy in the far-IR,” NASA said. “Webb will find the first galaxies to form in the early universe, for which it needs extreme sensitivity in the near-IR.”

Kelly explained that this extreme sensitivity will allow Webb to give new insight into areas of astronomy that scientists know less about, such as how the first galaxies formed, dark matter and brown dwarfs.

Boizelle explained that while there are some areas of discovery that some scientists tend to feel impact us on earth more directly, there are countless insights astronomy gives into the physics of daily life.

“It opens our minds to what is possible,” Boizelle said. “Here on earth, we are bound by how dense we can make material or the amount of energy we can use, but astronomy allows us to both probe the extremes of nature and physics that we cannot create on earth, and explore fundamental physics in a new and exciting way.”

Kelly explained that much of the technology we rely on today was boosted alongside the study of space, such as MRIs, X-ray machines, GPS and mobile technology.

Colby Eastmond, a sophomore at BYU with an interest in astronomy, said he believes astronomy has, and will continue, to bring about new scientific discovery that will benefit mankind.

“With astronomy, we can better understand the space around us and protect ourselves if needed, as demonstrated by NASA’s recent DART mission, which changed the orbit of an asteroid and demonstrated the potential ability for us to stop an asteroid from colliding with the earth,” Kelly said.

Kelly said the glory of God is intelligence, and anything we learn about the origins of life, the universe and its formation or the formation of worlds like our own will only help us to grow and become more like God.

“Hubble and Webb will work together to advance our collective understanding of the universe, ushering in a new golden age of astronomy,” NASA’s video, Hubble and Webb: A New Golden Age of Astronomy explained. 

The Hubble Space Telescope has taken photos of space since the 1990s. The Hubble is what inspired the need for the James Webb Space Telescope. (Olivia Tillotson)
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