Jan. 4—Can we just take a minute, amid all this chaos on Earth, to consider what is going on in the heavens?
Overhead, the James Webb Space Telescope — the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built — is unfolding its sunshield, to be followed in the coming days by the deployment of its mirrors. Ultimately, it will park in space nearly a million miles from Earth, and gaze back through time.
Named for a former NASA administrator who oversaw the space program through its Mercury and Gemini and early Apollo phases, the new space telescope will give us a much closer look at the universe around us, including planets in our solar system. It also will be able to help us search for planets around other stars that might be in the habitable or "Goldilocks" zone, capable of supporting life.
The telescope is so sophisticated it could detect the heat signature of a bumble bee at the distance of the moon.
This telescope also will allow us to see deeper into the universe and further back in time than we have ever seen before — to 13.5 billion years ago. It will get us to within a few hundred million years of the Big Bang.
According to NASA, "Webb will directly observe a part of space and time never seen before. Webb will gaze into the epoch when the very first stars and galaxies formed ... Ultraviolet and visible light emitted by the very first luminous objects has been stretched or 'redshifted' by the universe's continual expansion and arrives today as infrared light. Webb is designed to 'see' this infrared light with unprecedented resolution and sensitivity."
Think of the dramatic images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and all that it revealed to us about the universe. Well, the Webb, has mirrors three times the size of Hubble's, and is 100 times more powerful.
But for all that the James Webb Space Telescope will allow us to discover about the past, maybe the most important thing it will reveal to us is a truth about our time, and that is that we live in the most amazing of times.