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‘These images belong to all of us’: Spokane-area astronomers celebrate out-of-this-world footage from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope

The “Cosmic Cliffs” of the Carina Nebula are seen in an image divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion, with data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a revolutionary apparatus designed to peer through the cosmos to the dawn of the universe and released July 12, 2022. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing innumerable stars of many sizes. MUST CREDIT: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team.  (Courtesy NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI/ Webb ERO Production Team/WAPO)
By Mathew Callaghan The Spokesman-Review

When NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope revealed a batch of out-of-this world images Tuesday, Kamesh Sankaran, a professor of engineering and physics at Whitworth University, wasn’t just excited – he was relieved.

“The quality of the first images is astounding,” Sankaran said.

Still, Sankaran was concerned about the durability of a complex scientific instrument orbiting so far away from Earth. The Webb Telescope is deployed in solar orbit near the Sun, about 930,000 miles from the planet. If anything were to go wrong, like the faulty mirror that was discovered on the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, it would be impossible to fix. While the Hubble is 300 to 400 miles above the Earth and is able to be accessed by astronauts, the Webb telescope is impossible to reach, given how far away it is.

Sankaran’s excitement is echoed by other astronomers like Michele Moore, a professor at Spokane Falls Community College.

“It’s not trivial to think that over all the 50 years or so of space travel, we’ve been ramping up, building up, thinking about and creating better tools and better equipment to withstand the things we know are potential issues that any telescope or any satellite might experience,” Moore said in an interview.

The initial Webb photos, which were released at an event at the White House, far surpass Moore’s expectations, she said.

“It’s a pretty spectacular thing to realize you can look backwards in time, by roughly 13 billion years, and get a glimpse of our newly forming, newly developing Universe,” Moore said, referring to an image known as Webb’s First Deep Field.

Webb’s First Deep Field is an infrared image that covers a miniscule patch of sky visible from the Southern hemisphere. The image illustrates the early universe with thousands of shimmering galaxies that help fill the celestial void. It is the highest resolution infrared image of the early universe that has ever existed.

One image shown in the release Monday is a spectrum of exoplanet WASP-96 b. The data that the Webb telescope found from WASP-96 b gives evidence to the existence of water vapor on the gas giant.

“We can now analyze the atmosphere of the gases by looking at the light signatures that are present to determine what kinds of elements are there. And you know what, in the very first images, they are already finding that there are some really cool Jupiter-like giant planets, really close to their stars, and there’s evidence that there is some water there,” Moore continued. “It doesn’t mean that there is going to be life, necessarily. But, these are the first steps to us understanding what the potentials are out there with exoplanets orbiting their stars.”

Vivienne Baldassare, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Washington State University, specializes in black holes in small galaxies and is going to use the Webb Telescope images to help with her research. Baldassare, along with a team of distinguished scientists, was awarded observations to study nearby smaller galaxies and other stellar systems to search for black holes, she said.

“This is my life’s work to try to study this population of black holes in small galaxies,” she said. Astronomy and a lot of different science fields are hugely collaborative efforts, and I love being part of a group that’s working together to try to answer these questions.”

Baldassare is jubilant about being able to further her research, but she said she believes there’s more to these pictures than meets the eye.

“The telescope is an amazing international collaboration. These images belong to all of us,” Baldassare said.

The Carina Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula are two other pictures included in Monday’s release. These nebulas paint a star nursery with illuminating colors reminiscent of the Pillars of Creation. While a star nursery sounds pleasant, that is hardly the case for nebulas. They are a harsh playground of gas, dust and other materials that eventually create a star.

Another image, Stephan’s Quintet is a visual masterpiece depicting five galaxies close to one another. Four of the galaxies seem to be swirling around one another in a whirlpool of color, while the fifth is close but not as caught up in the action.

From black holes to dark matter, the James Webb Space Telescope, Sankaran said, gives us answers to questions that we haven’t yet asked.

While the untameable exhilaration surrounding the telescope may not be shared among everyone, Moore said she believes people should set their inner space nerd free.

“One of the most beautiful things about the James Webb Telescope is that it didn’t happen with just one individual,” Moore said, “It doesn’t actually happen with just one set of scientists. It’s not happening in just one research college institution. It’s actually not just happening in one country. We’re talking about a world full of scientists who have come together to make this incredibly illuminating feat possible.”

Editor’s note: This article was changed on July 13, 2022 to correct the spelling of Vivienne Baldassare.