Opinion | NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Images Are Extraordinary


The telescope has many missions, but perhaps most notably it will stare out into space to look for evidence of life. It will do this by peering into the atmospheres of exoplanets, those planets that orbit other stars.

Our universe is filled with dust and gas, so scientists need infrared light, a wavelength that allows us to bypass that pesky material, to see through it. Through its power to peer deep into the universe, the telescope will aim to solve mysteries in our planetary systems including our solar system, NASA says: It will “look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it.”

Deep field images show a moment frozen in time — galaxies wrap around one another, swinging past and tearing their dusty, star-riddled arms apart in a violent ballet. Stars are born, birthing new solar systems full of planets; galactic glitter sprinkles the screen as if splattered with a cosmic paintbrush. Each speck of light in that image, each swirling swath of color, contains potentially trillions of planets, many of which are like ours.

“Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return,” Dr. Sagan said. Perhaps that’s why we feel so overcome staring at the ocean or looking at images of the cosmos. Telescopes allow us access to ancient time, to the earliest days of our story and to bigger questions that we’ve been asking since the beginning of human history: How? Why? Are we alone?

Humans are explorers by nature, and it’s no surprise that as soon as we could explore the stars, we did. For thousands of years humans etched stars on rocks and painted constellations on cave walls. We’ve been looking up, echoing a cosmic gaze that is built into our bones, blood and history.

When we look up, we look for ourselves. Dr. Sagan once said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” and that could not be more true. We long to understand why we’re here and to find meaning in a world where meaning is so often difficult to divine. Telescopes like this remind us that in spite of our specific challenges on Earth, the possibility of connection still exists.