Opinion Stop for a minute. These space images are worth your time.

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This is a nebula — a giant cloud of gas and place where stars are born. It’s called Carina Nebula.

These are stars.

Nebula

Astronomers don't know the full story of how these features formed.

These are stars that just formed in our galaxy from the dust in the nebula.

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

These are stars.

Nebula

Astronomers don't know the full story of how these features formed.

These are stars that just formed in our galaxy from the dust in the nebula.

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

It would take about 8 years traveling

at the speed of light to cross this area.

Carina Nebula

These are stars.

Nebula

These are stars that just formed in our galaxy from the dust in the nebula.

Astronomers don't know the full story of how these features formed.

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

It would take about 12 years traveling at the speed of light to cross this area.

Carina Nebula

These are stars.

Nebula

These are stars that just formed in our galaxy from the dust in the nebula.

Astronomers don't know the full story of how these features formed.

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

Carina is one of the largest star-forming regions in the Milky Way. It is about 7,600 light-years away.

This means that it would take 7,600 years traveling at the speed of light to go from Earth to Carina’s region. So this is not Carina Nebula as it looks today but as it did 7,600 years ago, when the light recorded by the new James Webb telescope left its source.

Present

5,600 B.C.

The time shown in

the picture above.

Jesus

is born.

4 B.C.

U.S. signs

Declaration

of Independence.

1776 A.D.

Egyptians build

pyramids at Giza.

Around 2,500 B.C.

Present

5,600 B.C.

The time shown in

the picture above.

Jesus

is born.

4 B.C.

U.S. signs

Declaration of

Independence.

1776 A.D.

Egyptians build

pyramids at Giza.

Around 2,500 B.C.

5,600 B.C.

The time shown in

the picture above.

Present

Jesus is born.

4 B.C.

U.S. signs

Declaration of

Independence.

1776 A.D.

Egyptians build

pyramids at Giza.

Around 2,500 B.C.

Bonkers, right?

Everything about the Webb telescope is mind-boggling. Ponder this: Humans sent a telescope the size of a tennis court into space and parked it four times farther away than the moon.

1 million miles

Webb

Earth

Moon

1 million miles

Webb

Earth

Moon

1 million miles

Webb

Earth

Moon

There it orbits the sun along with us, just so we can get some pictures.

Webb

Sun

Earth

Moon

Earth’s orbit

Webb

Sun

Earth

Moon

Earth’s orbit

Webb

Earth

Sun

Moon

Earth’s orbit

The very first Webb image made public showed thousands of galaxies as they appeared about 13 billion years ago — that’s almost as far back in time as the Big Bang itself:

Brighter points such as this one are stars in our own galaxy.

The orange distorted galaxies are farther, some 13 billion light years from us.

Whiter blurs are galaxies that are closer to us.

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

Brighter points such as this one are stars in our own galaxy.

The orange distorted galaxies are farther, some 13 billion light years from us.

Whiter blurs are galaxies that are closer to us.

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

The orange distorted galaxies are farther, some 13 billion light years from us.

Brighter points such as this one are stars in our own galaxy.

Whiter blurs are galaxies that are closer to us.

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

The orange distorted galaxies are farther, some 13 billion light years from us.

Brighter points such as this one are stars in our own galaxy.

Whiter blurs are galaxies that are closer to us.

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

Remember, most of the colored circles and smudges in this image are galaxies — not stars. Galaxies can contain billions of stars and planets. And the square above represents just a tiny speck of space — NASA compared it to the patch of sky that would be covered by a grain of sand held at arm’s length on the surface of the Earth.

About 13 billion years

The oldest point in the

image above.

Present

Dinosaurs

extinct

65 million

years ago

The Sun and

the Earth

are formed

4.5 billion years

Big Bang

13.8 billion

years

About 13 billion years

The oldest point in the

image above.

Present

Dinosaurs

extinct

65 million

years ago

The Sun and

the Earth

are formed

4.5 billion years

Big Bang

13.8 billion

years

About 13 billion years

The oldest point in the

image above.

Present

Dinosaurs

extinct

65 million

years ago

The Sun and

the Earth are formed

4.5 billion years

Big Bang

13.8 billion

years

The Big Bang itself is not something we’ll be able to see with the Webb telescope. But the images the telescope produces will help us learn when and how the first celestial objects were formed as the universe cooled.

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To give you an idea of what the Webb can do, this is what we could see in the same region of sky before and after the Webb telescope.

Before: An image from the

Hubble telescope

After: The same region photographed

by the Webb

Images from NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Before: An image from the Hubble telescope

After: The same region photographed by the Webb

Images from NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Before: An image from the

Hubble telescope

After: The same region

photographed by the Webb

Images from NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Before: An image from the Hubble telescope

After: The same region photographed by the Webb

Images from NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

The Webb will help us better understand much more than how galaxies form. The photo below shows how a star similar to our sun looks as it is dying:

Southern Ring Nebula

The reddish core of

a dying star in our galaxy.

A second, normal star, here.

This is a cloud of gas made of chemical components ejected by the dying star.

NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Southern Ring Nebula

The reddish core of

a dying star in our galaxy.

A second, normal star, here.

This is a cloud of gas made of chemical components ejected by the dying star.

NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Southern Ring Nebula

The reddish core of

a dying star in our galaxy.

Scientists got their first clear peek at a second, normal star, here.

This is a cloud of gas made of chemical components ejected by the dying star.

NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Southern Ring Nebula

The reddish core of

a dying star in our galaxy.

Scientists got their first clear peek at a second, normal star, here.

This is a cloud of gas made of chemical components ejected by the dying star.

NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

As the star loses strength, it sheds its outer layers, creating a cloud of gas — the colorful ring surrounding the core. Such images will help us understand how dying stars spread atoms and molecules into space, and how that changes the chemistry of the universe.

With the Webb, we’ll also be able to see how stars are born. This image shows a group of five galaxies. Some of the galaxies are so close that they crash into each other, forming new stars. Younger stars are blue, older ones are red.

Stephan’s Quintet

The five galaxies labeled form the first group of galaxies ever discovered, in 1877.

2

1

3

4

The galaxies are clashing here.

5

Orange dots are galaxies much farther away.

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

Stephan’s Quintet

The five galaxies labeled form the first group of galaxies ever discovered, in 1877.

2

1

3

The galaxies are clashing here.

4

5

Orange dots are galaxies much farther away.

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

Stephan’s Quintet

The five galaxies labeled form the first group of galaxies ever discovered, in 1877.

2

A star in our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

1

3

The galaxies are clashing here.

4

This is the closest galaxy in this photo,

40 million light-years away from us.

The other four are about

290 million light-years away.

Orange dots are galaxies much farther away.

5

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

Stephan’s Quintet

The five galaxies labeled form the first group of galaxies ever discovered, in 1877.

Scientists believe that these clouds are a sign of a black hole in the middle of this galaxy.

2

A star in our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

1

3

The galaxies are clashing here.

4

This is the closest galaxy in this photo,

40 million light-years away from us.

The other four are about

290 million light-years away.

5

Orange dots are galaxies much farther away.

NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

Finally, the Webb telescope allows scientists to collect data of the chemical composition of stars and planets outside our solar system. This kind of detailed information will ultimately help us look for signs of life elsewhere in our galaxy.

These stunning images are a major achievement for us Earthlings. And given everything absurd we’ve witnessed on Earth of late, they are more than that. If nothing else, the humongousness of the universe ought to put our problems into perspective. A little insignificance isn’t such a bad thing.

David Von Drehle: The decades and billions spent on the James Webb telescope? Worth it.

Sources: Yvette Cendes, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, helped to label the images on this page. Mercedes López-Morales, also from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Nikolay Nikolov, from the Space Telescope Science Institute, were also consulted for this piece.

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