It’s no easy feat to get much of the the population of the world to pay attention to the same thing on the same day at the same moment. There are 7.5 billion of us, scattered across seven continents, 195 countries, and 24 time zones. Catching the attention of even a small fraction of that teeming mass of humanity is no small feat. And truth be told, this past Tuesday, July 12, NASA indeed did not have the eyes of the entire human family looking the same way at the same time. But it had a fair share of us. That’s because it was on that day that the space agency revealed the first clutch of images from the James Webb Space Telescope, a cosmic observatory parked at a spot in the void 1.6 million km (1 million mi.) from Earth.
The Webb is a machine of extremes. It was extremely expensive for one thing—setting NASA back a cool $10 billion. It is extremely cold for another—its main mirror chilled down to -223º C (-370º F), the better to detect the faint infrared signals coming to it from deep space and translate that energy to images. It is extremely precise too—the 18 segments of its 6.5 m (21 ft., 4 in.) mirror are able to be adjusted down to the nanometer, or billionth of a meter, in order to focus it as sharply as possible.
But the extreme machine paid off with extreme beauty. The pictures it returned were by any measure dazzling—the 7-light-year high dust pillars of the Carina Nebula, 7,600 light years from Earth; SMACS 0723, a deep field view of a massive cluster of galaxies, some of them 13.1 billion light years distant; the Southern Ring Nebula, an expanding cloud of gas nearly half a light year wide surrounding a pair of dying stars, 2,000 light years away from us; and more.
“Every image is a new discovery and each will give humanity a view of the universe that we’ve never seen before,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, in a gathering at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., shortly before the pictures were revealed.
“Looking at this image for five minutes and then walking out of my job,” tweeted @sydbricks, above a post of the SMACS 0723 picture.
In some ways, the little-known @sydbricks—one of the uncounted millions worldwide who tuned in to follow the release of the images—nailed the sentiment better than the famous Nelson. The administrator was right that the pictures give us an image of our universe that we’ve never seen before. But it’s what we do with that experience that matters more. Walking out of your job? Not necessarily a good—or presumably serious—suggestion. But looking at your job and your world and our solar system and our entire galaxy in a new way, as infinitesimal parts of something inexpressibly grand, something that should give us a new perspective of the enormity that is the universe? Yeah, sure, go for that.
Webb has up to 25 years of life left to it before it runs out of maneuvering fuel and, sometime around 2047, is retired. It will return thousands more images in that time, many of which may be even grander than the ones revealed this week. But it is that first tiny handful of pictures—and the new sense they give us of our place in the cosmos—that will have changed us the most.
This story originally appeared in TIME Space, our weekly newsletter covering all things space. You can sign up here.
July 16, 2022 at 02:42AM Jeffrey Kluger