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Dawn of a New Era of Exploration

Galaxy Cluster S MACS0723. Courtesy of NASA

The  first images from the new James Webb Space Telescope, the largest space telescope ever built, have just been released. It can observe distant parts of the universe, including many fledgling galaxies.  As President Biden announced when the first images were shared by NASA, ” This is the oldest documented light in the history of the universe from 13 billion years ago!”

Cosmic Cliffs. Courtesy of NASA

The spacecraft that carried the telescope has been orbiting the earth, about a million miles away, since last Christmas. During this time, NASA has been ever so carefully unfolding and assembling remotely the components of the telescope so that it could precisely capture faint infrared light in deep space. These components include a sun shield that keeps the instruments cold enough to function properly. The deployment has been a tense time. NASA reports that there were 344 “single-point failures,” meaning that if any of the single-point steps had not worked, the telescope would have ended up as useless space junk. Miraculously, everything worked!

The Webb telescope is larger than the Hubble telescope (which has been capturing images from space for years) and is equipped with much more sensitive cameras. This week, NASA administrator Bill Nelson exclaimed that the new telescope is a “keyhole into the past…a shining example of what we can accomplish when we dream big!”

Southern Ring Nebula. Courtesy of NASA

We humans are explorers by nature, as NASA scientists have reminded us. We are also brilliant problem-solvers and innovators—the James Webb telescope is testament to this. But, sadly, we don’t seem to be able to get along with each other to solve the very real existential threats to our planet. Let’s hope we turn a corner soon, put aside petty differences, and begin cooperating as fellow humans on a mysterious journey through the unfathomable void of space. After all, it’s our moral obligation!

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