Bill Nye Breaks Down Webb Telescope Space Images

The James Webb Space Telescope has dazzled us with its first batch of images. WIRED got in touch with the one and only Bill Nye to break down some of these astonishing photos, explaining what we're really looking at. Bill analyzes some images of the Carina Nebula, Southern Ring Nebula, Stephan's Quintet and more.

Video Transcript

- [Narrator] The Webb Telescope dazzled the world, with its first batch of images.

So, Wired turned to the one science guy, that can make it all make sense.

- We're taking pictures of these objects, with astonishing precision.

It's like, whoa.

[bright music] If you could somehow be there, with your space suit looking out, you wouldn't see any of these things.

The image was taken in infrared wavelengths.

What we also call heat.

And so this instrument can detect all these objects, in the infrared, and then we, here on Earth, take those data and shift it, so that it's visible to our eye.

The universe is accelerating apart.

The cool thing is the farther away something is, and the faster it's moving, the redder it is.

And so they'll use red light for that.

The near objects are closer to the color of the chosen, for the central object in this image.

So those things that are about the same distance are blue.

- [Narrator] So a big takeaway, is that these images are enhanced.

Color coded.

Basically, photoshopped by NASA artists, based on infrared data.

But what exactly is being depicted in this image?

- You're looking at a stellar nursery, where stars are being born.

Our sun spins.

These stars are all spinning.

That's why here we are in the solar system, with spinning planets going around a spinning star, all orbiting or moving around the center of the galaxy.

It's amazing.

Why is everything spinning?

When the mutual gravity of these particles, brings them together, their unevenness often resolve themselves into a disc.

And then in the center of the disc, often resolves into a star where you get a sphere.

- [Narrator] And from the birth of a star, we move on to an image that depicts a star, near the end of its existence.

- This ring that has this wonderful name.

The Southern Ring.

People in the Southern hemisphere of Earth.

Astronomers can observe this, but never seen it this close.

This is the star that's exploded.

That's supernova.

These supernovi are what creates all the elements, that you and I are made of.

And so we're looking at the process that creates life.

And as Carl Sagan would remark, since we are made of the elements of these exploded stars, you and I are one way the universe knows itself.

I'm like, dude.

And in the center is a white dwarf.

It's a star that's thrown out most of its material, but is now, its gravity has crushed it down, where it's glowing in white light.

So when they look closer, they found that there were two objects, moving around each other.

It's like, if you've ever been on roller skates, or ice skates, you go toward each other, and then grab arms and you go like that.

So that's what's happening here.

- [Narrator] One of the most detailed images of the bunch, depicts a celestial feature.

Scientists are now gathering information, from the black hole that seems to be photo bombing.

This black hole in particular is massive.

- How massive is it?

Light cannot escape.

But you can infer that there's one in there, by looking at the pattern of the light, that does get around it from stars behind it, and nearby stars.

And so, the scientists right now, are looking at this gas cloud near a black hole, and inferring what elements are in it.

Iron, Argon, Neon, Sulfur.

And then the dream, everybody, is to look for a planet, and then to look closely at the atmosphere of that planet.

- [Narrator] But how can we actually spot something, as tiny as a planet that's thousands of light years away.

Let alone know what gases and elements it contains?

- The star is of a certain brightness.

When the planet passes between us and the star, the brightness goes down.

When it gets back on the far side of the star, the brightness goes up again.

And it does it regularly.

That's the key.

The planet's orbiting.

It does it regularly and that helps you infer, that the dimming and brightening of the star, is 'cause the planet's going around it.

Looking even more closely around this, you'll get an ability to look through the atmosphere, with the light from the star behind it.

And then looking at the spectra, what wavelengths of light make it through that atmosphere, you're able to infer what the atmosphere is made of.

If you're looking for adventure, you can isolate different gases.

Water vapor, oxygen, nitrogen.

You can shine light through the gas, and some wavelengths will be absorbed.

Some will pass right through.

And this telescope is so sensitive, that you can infer the composition of the atmosphere.

- [Narrator] So what did they find, while looking at Planet Wasp 96-B, which is more than a thousand light years away?

- So in this image they found water vapor.

Now water is very common in our solar system.

So it's reasonable that it's common elsewhere.

And it's reasonable, then you would have the same sort of processes, on a distant planet.

Now and so what everybody wants to find is methane.

If you found natural gas, it might mean that there's living things producing it.


'Cause the main source of methane here on Earth, is living things, bacteria.

So if we find a star with a planet, with an atmosphere that has methane, we might infer that there was life out there, which would change everything.

It would change the way you and I feel about being alive.

'Cause all of us have wondered where we all came from.

Are we alone in the cosmos, or is there some other living thing out there, with its own James Webb Space Telescope looking at us, trying to answer the same question.

The discoveries that will be made, in the coming weeks and months and years, will be astonishing.

And I say all the time, my grandparents didn't know there was relativity.

It wouldn't surprise me if in the next 10 or 30 years, there's some discovery about dark energy, and how these things interact.

That will change everything.

That wouldn't surprise me.