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James Webb images offer inspiration to future generation of scientists and students

As the James Webb Space Telescope opens the door to a new era of understanding the cosmos, the world watches in awe as images from this technological marvel begin to reinvigorate the public’s excitement and interest in space. 

The first images from JWST were released this week offering a look further back into the history of the universe than ever before. Scientists, educators and the public alike are all digesting arguably the biggest space news of this century, which comes as a huge advancement in astronomical research. 

“This is like unwrapping a new gift with every image, and every image is going to be more amazing than the last,” said Eric Perlman, an observational astrophysicist at the Florida Institute of Technology. “There’s a million different details that you zoom in on and there’s just amazing new stuff.”

LISTEN: Hear more about JWST’s first images on WMFE’s latest episode of Are We There Yet?.

Along with visually stunning imagery, JWST was also able to observe the chemical fingerprints of an exoplanet, or a planet outside of our solar system orbiting a star that is not our sun, called WASP-96b. This ability of the telescope is a huge step towards finding other planets beyond Earth that could potentially be habitable to life. 

“That spectrum shows water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, but not just any exoplanet. This is an exoplanet that is at 1000 degrees which also means that if you look at a cooler planet, there’s going to be a lot of water too,” he said. 

The temperature of the observed planet was many times hotter than the temperature to boil water, meaning that the planet’s atmosphere contains clouds. If there are clouds, there is water. And if there’s water—there could be life. 

“We have been thinking that the places where life could exist are planets like the Earth, right? Well, that might not be completely right,” said Perlman.” It might be that there are many more places for life in the universe.”

In addition to that chemical analysis, one of the photos released of the Carina Nebula shows us a cosmic nursery and a previously obscured star formation within it that will better help scientists understand the process of the birth of stars. 

“If we look at each one of the stars in the Carina Nebula, each one of them is a new sun and a new solar system being born. We’re looking at this process as it happens,” Perlman said. “This is the kind of region where [our] sun was born four and a half billion years ago. We are looking at the creation of new stars and we are looking at the place where they are being born.”

Planetary scientists aren’t the only people excited about the new images from this out-of-this-world telescope. Kyle Jeter, an astronomy teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, explains how this development will change the way space is both taught and studied—inside the classroom and out. 

“I just know throughout the entire year, and really for as long as I teach, we’re going to be learning new things from James Webb,” Jeter said. “It really is a new era.”

Jeter has been teaching astronomy for 25 years and witnessed many exciting historical developments in space, including the observations of the Hubble Space Telescope, and said that one of the most crucial contributions that JWST will have is getting young people truly excited about space again. 

“With space science and everything from the Artemis program, to what SpaceX is doing, and then adding this in with JWST—it’s kind of incumbent upon us to get that out there and let people know how exciting it is,” he said. 

Jeter remembers back to when the images from Hubble allowed for so many aspects of astronomy to develop and change, and the learning curve he anticipates that the data gathered and discoveries made by JWST will have on the study of deep space. 

“As a country, as humanity, we could use some good news and some exciting things to talk about, and things that we can all kind of enjoy and get behind and learn from,” Jeter said. “In terms of as a teacher, just about every chapter eventually will be affected by this, just like my chapters were with the Hubble long ago.” 

Arguably the most exciting aspect of JWST lies in its differences from Hubble. Rather than seeing optical wavelengths of light as Hubble does, the new space telescope will look at infrared wavelengths, said NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce, in an interview with WMFE’s Are We There Yet?ahead of the launch of JWST. 

“One thing is just the sheer size, it’s huge. Its mirror, which is actually not one solid mirror like in Hubble, but it’s a segmented mirror. So there’s 18 different pieces that have to be aligned to work perfectly,” she said. “So it can collect much more light than Hubble, that means it can see stuff that’s farther away.”

And if JWST can see things that are deeper in the universe, “that means that when you look at things that are very, very far away, you’re not seeing them as they are in the present day, you’re seeing them as they appeared when the light started its journey. So you’re effectively looking back in time,” she explained. 

Greenfieldboyce said that regardless of many setbacks and budgetary issues over the decades of JWST’s development, once the results of this telescope begin to teach us more about the cosmos than we’ve ever learned before, no one will care to remember the price tag. 

“There’s this sense of unreality that this thing they’ve sort of talked about and heard about for, you know, their whole careers in some cases,” Greenfieldboyce said. “It’s the most powerful space telescope ever launched, the most complicated telescope ever put into space.”

Copyright 2022 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

Caroline Brauchler