Spell it out: From star birth to signs of life, the James Webb Telescope is changing the way we see space

After several delays, the largest optical space telescope was launched into the cosmos on December 25, 2021 by the US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa). The James Webb Telescope was inspired by the Hubble Space Telescope, the famous 31-year-old observatory that is responsible for most of the stunning photos of distant galaxies you can find on the internet.

The result of a collaboration between Canada, Europe and the United States, the James Webb Space Telescope is Hubble’s younger brother, smarter and more tech-savvy. It takes stargazing to the next level. First, its massive 21.3-foot primary mirror helps it become the most distant telescope ever built. Second, the telescope sees the universe in the infrared, an area that has wavelengths slightly longer than visible light, on the electromagnetic spectrum.

Here’s what astronomers hope the James Webb Space Telescope can observe:

1. Galaxy formation

Telescopes are like time machines, allowing viewers to look back in time as light from galaxies takes light years to reach Earth. For example, since the dwarf galaxy Canis Major is 25,000 light-years from Earth, we see it as it was 25,000 years ago. Scientists hope to look further into space so they can see further back in time and piece together the formation of galaxies by observing them at different stages of development.

2. Signs of life

Does life exist on other planets? If so, it will likely release distinct chemical signatures, according to a December 2021 report from Smithsonian Magazine. The Webb Telescope can detect infrared wavelengths for chemical fingerprints, such as water and methane, in the atmospheres of exoplanets, allowing scientists to search for life there and even assess the capacity of planets to support human life.

3. Birth of stars

The birthplaces of stars are known to be full of dust. As they take spectacular photographs, like the iconic “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula, dust prevents astronomers from peering through the heart of the clouds. However, infrared light emitted by stars can penetrate through dust, meaning constellations get a high-resolution upgrade like never before, with the Webb Telescope. Infant stars, in particular, can now be observed in unprecedented detail, and scientists can now study why stars form in clusters and how planets form around stars.

4. Black holes

Mysterious black holes swallow everything, even light. So how do you study one? Scientists are focusing on the stars, dust, and even entire galaxies swirling around the black hole — things observable to them. For the past few decades, scientists have used X-ray telescopes to try to understand the physics of how black holes work. While X-rays are produced by hot phenomena of millions of degrees, like stars torn apart by a black hole, the infrared vision of the Webb telescope will pick up data on cooler gases and stars slightly further away from the black hole. This whole new perspective is like looking beyond a dusty curtain. Now astronomers can fully understand the mass and size of black holes, and how and why they consume everything in their path.

What do you think of the huge potential of the James Webb Space Telescope? Play Spell It today and let us know at [email protected]

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