The big questions the Webb telescope could help answer


This image released by NASA on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, shows the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth, according to NASA. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI via AP)

(NewsNation) — The first images from the new James Webb Space Telescope released earlier this week offered a deeper look into the cosmos than anything humanity has ever seen — and experts say it’s just the beginning.

The Webb, which is primarily an infrared telescope, will allow scientists to look farther back in time, in better detail, than any technology before it.

“It’s going to allow us to begin to answer questions about the early history of the universe that we’ve wondered about for a very long time,” Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, told “Dan Abrams Live” on Wednesday.

These are some of the big questions the Webb may help us better understand:

are we alone in the universe?

Don’t expect Webb to discover an alien colony, but it may help scientists get closer to answering the ultimate question.

Researchers will use the telescope to study the atmospheres of exoplanets — planets outside the solar system — where they’ll be looking for “biosignatures.” These substances are the ingredients for life and may indicate whether living organisms exist outside Earth.

Here’s how they do it: Scientists observe a star and study its light. When an exoplanet passes in front of that star, effectively backlighting it, they’ll measure how the star’s light interacts with that planet.

From there, researchers are able to determine how much of the star’s light was absorbed by the exoplanet’s atmosphere. They compare that to what we know about the absorption levels of Earth’s atmosphere and try to figure out which molecules are present.

“If we saw an Earthlike planet in the habitable zone, which has indications of the right temperature and water vapor in the atmosphere, and oxygen in the atmosphere, we would start thinking wait, something’s up there,” said Geza Gyuk, the director of astronomy at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

how did we get here?

On Monday, NASA released the first deep-field image from the James Webb Space Telescope. With just 12.5 hours of exposure time, scientists were able to see billions of years into the past in greater detail than ever before.

The image, which shows thousands of distant galaxies, represents only a tiny fraction of the universe, equivalent to a single grain of sand held up to the sky.

This image provided by NASA on Monday, July 11, 2022, shows galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope is designed to peer back so far that scientists can get a glimpse of the dawn of the universe about 13.7 billion years ago and zoom in on closer cosmic objects, even our own solar system, with sharper focus. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI via AP)

Gyuk says Webb is effectively a “time machine” because, although it’s counterintuitive, light takes time to travel.

Think about it like this: it takes about eight minutes for light to get from the Sun to Earth, so when you look at the Sun you’re actually seeing it as it was eight minutes earlier. The same goes for stars and distant galaxies, except that they’re much further away.

The faintest galaxies in the latest deep-field image are billions of light years away so you’re actually seeing them as they were billions of years ago, Gyuk said.

“If we know more of who we are, where we come from, how we fit into the universe, people can learn to appreciate the uniqueness of humans, the uniqueness of life,” Gyuk said.

A higher resolution look into the past will help scientists better understand how galaxies originally formed and grew.

how do supermassive black holes form?

Black holes remain one of the strangest, least understood objects in our universe. Their gravity is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape them. So how can a telescope study something that’s invisible?

The reason we know anything at all about black holes is because there’s a lot scientists can detect near the behemoths of darkness — gas, dust and stars swirl around them.

Of particular interest for researchers are the supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies. The infrared eye on Webb will help astronomers look through the gas and dust that had previously made it difficult to study the surrounding matter.

Be warned: we have a supermassive black hole at the center of our own galaxy. It’s about 4 million times the mass of the sun and for now, scientists don’t really know how it got there.

“It’ll be really interesting to find out how these monsters grow,” said Gyuk, who assures that our solar system won’t be sucked into a black hole anytime soon.

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