EMILY KWONG, HOST:
You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
Hey there, nerds. So this week, stargazers and space watchers were in for a real treat. My news feed - and possibly yours - was interrupted by eye-popping images from the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. It's the most powerful telescope ever sent into space, costing NASA $10 billion and two whole decades of work. And that work is finally starting to pay off, lighting up social media with photos of a galaxy cluster, a stellar nursery and a portrait of our early universe just after the Big Bang, teeming with thousands of baby galaxies. Basically, this telescope is a time machine. And to help me fully appreciate what these images mean, there's two people who came to mind.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: I'm Joe Palca, and I'm the science correspondent at NPR.
REGINA BARBER, BYLINE: I'm Regina Barber. I'm the scientist in residence at SHORT WAVE.
KWONG: It's incredible the images that are circulating from this telescope. And I just want to start off by asking you both, what is the significance of this moment to you?
BARBER: It is huge for me, actually.
BARBER: I - when I got my Ph.D. a while ago, I used Hubble Space Telescope images. And just the images we got from the telescope, even with all of the trials and struggles, were amazing. It was a game changer for astronomy. And we've been anticipating this forever, and it's just been delayed and delayed. So when the images finally came up, it was like, you know, astronomy Twitter blew up.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BARBER: I remember being in my teens and getting the astronomy magazine. And when Hubble started putting out its first images, it was just so different. Like, the graininess of all the images were gone and the colors - and it was just - it was mind-blowing for me. It actually made me want to become an astronomer. So in that moment the other day when I saw the deep-field image, I was just - it was just amazing. I loved it.
KWONG: And what about you, Joe? Did you ever think this telescope would deliver images like these?
PALCA: Well, you know, I've been following it for a couple decades now. And, you know, it was almost dead eight or so years ago. And the number of problems and delays and cost overruns - and then, you know, when you think about all the things that had to go right to get it to work at all, it's just...
PALCA: ...Astounding. And I - personally, if you'd asked me, I would have said it's not going to work. I was (laughter) thinking that, you know, I told Wilbur, and I told Orville, you'll never get that thing off the ground. It's always a little bit amazing that these spacecraft work. But this one in particular was incredibly complicated. Once I knew it was working, I knew it would be spectacular. I had no doubt about that. The minute these things all started deploying and I wasn't hearing, oh, we have - Houston, we have a problem - no, I wasn't hearing any of that. And so I knew they would be eye-popping.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET ENGINE)
KWONG: (Imitating radio static). Houston, we have a photo drop.
Mind-bending new portraits of our universe and our origins - what it's like to see the James Webb Space Telescope pictures through the eyes of an astrophysicist and a science journalist. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KWONG: So let's talk about the images by naming our favorites, OK? I know that's hard but pick which one is your favorite and what it shows.
BARBER: OK, so I like Stephan's Quintet. I like seeing these galaxies interacting. Some people call it, like, a galaxy dance. I really - I love that image.
PALCA: And I'm smitten by the deep field because, you know, that's why we're all here. That's why they built this thing, for this deep field and the ones to come.
KWONG: This is so basic of me, but it's already my desktop background. The Carina Nebula one is pretty gorgeous.
PALCA: No, it depends whether you're into pretty pictures or real science. Come on.
BARBER: Oh, my God. No. No.
KWONG: I'm into both. But you're going to help me appreciate the real science that's in all of these images. So let's talk about Stephan's Quintet. That is a galaxy group in the constellation Pegasus. And this is a cool fact that I didn't realize. This group of galaxies starts off Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life," - that scene where the angels are chatting up in space and trying to figure out what to do with George Bailey.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE")
MORONI OLSEN: (As Senior Angel) Hello, Joseph. Trouble?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Joseph) Looks like we'll have to send someone down. A lot of people asking for help for a man named George Bailey.
OLSEN: (As Senior Angel) George Bailey? Yes. Tonight's his crucial night. You're right. We'll have to send someone down immediately. Whose turn is it?
KWONG: So in this movie, which was made, you know, 80 years ago, Stephan's Quintet just looks like cute galaxy clouds. The image we're looking at from the James Webb Space Telescope is so much more detailed. I mean, you can see pinpricks of stars. And the image itself is actually a composite of hundreds of pictures taken by the telescope's near-infrared camera, or near cam, and the mid-infrared instrument, or MIRI. Regina, what do you see when you look at this image? And what excites you about it?
BARBER: I was pulled to this image instantly because this is showing how galaxies evolve, you know? And I just love this idea of, you know, how do these things even form, you know? How do these big, spherical galaxies, these elliptical galaxies - how do they form? And this is showing us a glimpse of that.
KWONG: So you're saying we're actually looking at a photo of the past, and we're able to learn about star evolution, which is just so cool. Let's talk about another image that's getting a lot of attention. NASA calls it a stellar nursery. This image is from the northwest corner of the Carina Nebula. It's this, like, orange canyon nebula wall. There's cracks. There's crevices. You can see starbursts. You can see dust clouds. Regina, what are these shapes that we're seeing?
BARBER: Yeah, so, like, those little knobs are, like - that's where a star is being born. And when a star ignites - when fusion ignites in the core of a star, like snap, it ignites. And what happens is radiation just shoots off of it. So there's, like, this shock wave that kind of goes off of this star. And so what you see here in the JWST image is you kind of see these gaps in the gas and dust. And those gaps are because of these, like, stellar winds that are coming off of these newborn stars. It's so detailed here. And we get to see a lot of the stuff happening because it's in the infrared.
BARBER: If it was Hubble images taken in the visible spectrum, a lot of the stuff would be obscured by dust and gas, so we wouldn't actually be able to see what's happening in the stellar nursery.
KWONG: So let's talk about that. There's been a lot of comparisons to kind of the same regions as taken by Hubble versus JWST. Joe, what allows this telescope to capture this in such detail?
PALCA: Well, basically, it's just got a giant mirror. I mean, the bigger the mirror, the more the light and the more resolution you can get. The mirror is like a bucket. So you're trying to catch photons. And the more you can catch, the better. And the wider the diameter of the mirror, the smaller the detail that you can resolve.
BARBER: Because you have this mirror that's about three times bigger than the mirror in Hubble, then you don't actually have to wait as long to collect the same amount of photons, right? So that amazing, deep-field image that we're going to be talking about - that would have taken weeks for Hubble to get with its smaller mirror. But with JWST, it only took 12.5 hours.
KWONG: Wow. And what light are we not able to see that the telescope is allowing us to see here?
PALCA: Infrared. So, you know, there's this visible spectrum. It goes from red to violet, essentially. And if you go longer wavelengths than red, you get the infrared. And humans can't see into the ultraviolet or into the infrared. Some animals have a little more range in that regard. But this telescope was built with detectors that are looking for light in the infrared, and the mirrors themselves were designed to capture as much infrared light as possible.
KWONG: Right. Right. Wow. Joe, I want to talk about your favorite picture - the deep field. It is an image containing thousands of galaxies, some formed shortly after the Big Bang. I don't know how to even describe what this picture looks like. Like, what do you think - how would you describe this?
PALCA: The first thing that came to my mind was early Jackson Pollock.
KWONG: Oh, yeah.
PALCA: But I'm not sure that's even fair. It looks like a lot of different-sized blobs and squiggles and smears and circles and things like that.
KWONG: To me, it looks like you look down the barrel of a kaleidoscope filled with, like, sequins and gemstones, and you're turning it around. And what's making me say that, is it's - some of the light pieces are curved. So what is happening there? Why are they curved?
BARBER: So as soon as I saw this image, I knew it was gravitational lensing. So what happens is that there is some massive thing in space. And what that massive thing is is a cluster of galaxies. And because it's so massive, it actually bends space and time. Imagine, like, a trampoline. All the kids are jumping, and then all the kids smush together and all hug each other in the very middle. And it's going to bend that trampoline and you're going to have this dip in the trampoline. Right? So if light can only move along the surface of that trampoline, then it's going to have to move along that curve.
KWONG: Very cool. Of all the images that were released, would you say this is the one looking back the furthest in time?
PALCA: Absolutely. I mean, this picture is the reason for an infrared telescope with a big mirror because what they're trying to do is see light from further away than anything has been able to be visualized before. So what you do with these so-called deep field is you find a patch of sky that basically doesn't have anything in it most of the time or is missing a lot. And you just sit there and wait. And you begin to see little, tiny, red dots. Those little, tiny, red dots are going to be what we can see of the earliest galaxies to form in the universe - maybe 100, 200 million years after the Big Bang. And that's why this telescope was built, to see something that ancient coming from a time when the universe was that young.
KWONG: Yeah. Wow. In the future, are we going to be waking up to photo drops like this? Like, what's NASA's strategy moving forward?
BARBER: I think we are going to continually get images. We're going to see a huge rise in publications, like, things that we didn't even think before. I think that there's going to be interest in, like, really revisiting the idea of dark matter and dark energy. We're really trying to figure that out. And I think this telescope will help with that. You know, galaxy formation - it's - we still don't totally know how galaxies were formed. And now I feel...
KWONG: Wait. Talk about that. We don't know how galaxies are formed?
BARBER: Not completely. We have theories, right? We have - well, we have hypotheses. We have theories. But we're still working on those models, right? And in my opinion, JWST - it's going to be a game changer for galaxy formation.
KWONG: Yeah. Gina's here for the galaxy narratives. Joe, what questions do you think that JWST has posed to answer?
PALCA: The one thing I think that is worth mentioning is that possibly the most interesting thing to come from this telescope is something that nobody can even know what to predict because every time you build a new instrument with new capabilities, you see things you never saw before. And, you know, that's like, well, what kinds of things? And the answer is, I don't know. That's why we're doing this. We're looking because we don't know. And that's going to start a whole new set of questions, and that's why this is going to be really exciting. But ask me what it is - I have no idea.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KWONG: Joe Palca, Regina Barber, thank you so much for coming on the show and talking about these images.
PALCA: You're very welcome. It was fun.
BARBER: Yeah. Thank you so much. I love these images, and it helped me process them in real time.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KWONG: This episode was produced by Margaret Cirino and Thomas Lu. It was edited by Gabriel Spitzer and fact-checked by Rachael Carlson. Gisele Grayson is our senior supervising editor. Beth Donovan and Anya Grundmann are our senior director and our senior vice president of programming. I'm Emily Kwong. Thank you so much for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.