Editorial: Webb telescope delivers

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Few things are as mesmerizing as a full view of the stars on a crystal clear night, when the wilds and wonders of the cosmos reveal themselves to observers here on Earth. Gazing at the heavens ignites the imagination, stirs curiosity and prods us to ponder the origins of the universe.

This week, NASA released the first images captured by the Webb Space Telescope and “mesmerizing” somehow seems an inadequate description. It seems certain that this remarkable machine will not only advance our body of understanding, but inspire us for years to come.

The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, revolutionized observation of celestial objects and advanced human understanding of the cosmos. The images it captured remain awe-inspiring: clear and stunning views of the heavens that allowed scientists to peer deeper into space than ever before.

Before Hubble, questions about the age of the universe, how the planets formed and the curious nature of so-called “dark matter” were the subject of speculation and hypothesis. The data collected by Hubble helped provide answers — and, naturally, led to more questions.

In 1996, NASA began development of a Hubble replacement. The “Next Generation Space Telescope” would enable humans to look even further back in time, delivering observable images and data from nearer to the birth of the universe, commonly called the Big Bang. It would be 100 times more powerful than its predecessor and deliver unrivaled imagery from the deepest reaches of space.

Building such a machine takes time. When it launched from French Guiana on Dec. 25, the new $10 billion telescope, named for former NASA Direct James Webb, was the product of decades of work.

It also takes a lot of people. As the space agency notes, construction involved more than 1,200 “scientists, engineers and technicians from 14 countries (and more than 27 U.S. states)” and is a collaborative effort among NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Getting it into space, about 1 million miles from Earth, was only the first step. Even after launch, those involved held their breath until the complex apparatus deployed its gold-coated mirrors, powered up its instruments and began its observations.

Now comes the fun part.

On Monday, at a news conference featuring President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the public saw its first glimpse of what’s to come: a full-color image of what’s known as a “deep field” observation. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson described it as a “patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.”

Instead of the inky blackness of space, the image shows a collection of brilliant galaxies that almost seem to dance before the eye. When one considers how many stars, planets and other bodies are contained in each galaxy, the image offers a dazzling array of possibilities.

“We’re looking back more than 13 billion years,” Nelson said on Monday. “Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, and that light that you are seeing from one of those little specks, has been traveling for over 13 billion years.”

Compare that image to the ones captured by Hubble — photos that were already breath-taking — and it’s easy to see why the science community is positively giddy with excitement of what Webb will deliver in the months and years to come.

Many of those scientists poring over the Webb images today can trace their interest in the cosmos to the thrilling discoveries sent to Earth by Hubble. What will the next generation of astronomers, inspired by images from the Webb, discover? We can’t wait to find out.