As Hamlet puts it, "What a piece of work is man." Less than 150 years since we created incandescent light and almost 120 years since two brothers who owned a bike shop first achieved powered flight, we are exploring the far reaches of the universe. Consider that for a second. Less than a century and a half - a nanosecond of human existence - we've gone from reading by candlelight to the James Webb telescope, in orbit around the sun in Earth's shadow, reading light that has traveled hundreds of millions of years to reach it. And in some cases, several billions.
Take, for instance, this awe-inspiring image above.
NASA -NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has peered into the chaos of the Cartwheel Galaxy, revealing new details about star formation and the galaxy’s central black hole. Webb’s powerful infrared gaze produced this detailed image of the Cartwheel and two smaller companion galaxies against a backdrop of many other galaxies. This image provides a new view of how the Cartwheel Galaxy has changed over billions of years.
The Cartwheel Galaxy, located about 500 million light-years away in the Sculptor constellation … is the result of an intense event – a high-speed collision between a large spiral galaxy and a smaller galaxy not visible in this image. …
The collision most notably affected the galaxy’s shape and structure. The Cartwheel Galaxy sports two rings — a bright inner ring and a surrounding, colorful ring. These two rings expand outwards from the center of the collision, like ripples in a pond after a stone is tossed into it.
To put that into context, the fact that the Cartwheel is a half billion light-years away means that the image the James Webb recorded took a half billion years to travel from its origin point to here. Which makes this magnificent image we're looking at a half billion years old. So quite literally, we are seeing that far backwards in time.
And yet, on a grand, cosmic scale, the Cartwheel is pretty much two doors down, on the same side of the street from us. This one is far away:
Source - The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has taken a new image of the most distant individual star ever seen at nearly 28 billion light years away. At such enormous distances, we can usually only make out entire galaxies, but a lucky coincidence has allowed researchers to spot this star, called Earendel, with the Hubble Space Telescope and then observe it again with JWST on 30 July.
Earendel – which means “morning star” or “rising light” – resides in a galaxy called the Sunrise Arc. It is so named because its light has been stretched into a long curve by the gravity of a galaxy cluster closer to Earth in a process called gravitational lensing. This process also magnified the galaxy by a factor of more than 1000, allowing astronomers to confirm with JWST that Earendel is an individual star and not a cluster of hundreds. …
“That’s a really lucky alignment,” says Dan Coe at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, part of the team that made the new measurements. “Nobody’s ever seen a star this highly magnified, not to mention a galaxy.” Earendel is more than 10 billion light years more distant than the next-furthest star astronomers have seen.
Because light takes time to travel, we are now observing Earendel as it was about 900 million years after the big bang.
As long as we're nerding out here, I'm compelled to point out that light from Earendil was in the phial that the elf queen Galadriel gives Frodo to "be a light to you in dark places."
I'm just glad that someone who was better at STEM than me put that knowledge to good use. Rather than just quoting it when the power goes out or hoping the topic comes up at bar trivia.
But getting back to the star itself, this discovery, which took not only the combined work of our most brilliant engineers, astronomers and rocket scientists, standing on the shoulders of giants like Newton and Einstein, but also of the incalculable luck of having galaxies align in such a way as to create that gravitational lensing effect. And as a result, we're looking at something from when the universe was still in diapers and barely beginning to crawl. It's both staggeringly wondrous, it's also humbling beyond words.
Consider that when the Big Bang first occurred, the only elements in existence were hydrogen, helium, and a little bit of lithium. Those came together to form stars. The burned for eons, then cooled, and finally collapsed. And then out of those came carbon, which is the essential component of all life on Earth. So you and I, whales and elephants, dogs and dinosaurs, trees and David Hasselhoff, all come from stars. And now we're beginning to see them almost all the way back to the beginning of time itself.
You can feel insignificant as you gaze into the void and consider how incomprehensibly vast it all is. But I'm going to suggest that as the JWST beams us more of these images, that you appreciate the true miracle we bear witness to, and are part of. In the words of the late, great Carl Sagan, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
Thanks for indulging me by reading to the end. Now back to our usual crap.