By: Aidan Kelley
If you’ve ever wandered through textbooks, picture books or have been around the internet for a long time, you might have seen the countless images of stars, nebulae or galaxies that have been photographed, studied and researched for hundreds of years. Looking at these images depicts a sense of beauty in the unknown or untouchable, and if you were anything like me as a kid, you would want to know more about these images, who or what took them.
After doing just a little bit of digging, you’ll find that most, if not all, of the images that you have seen were taken by a large telescope in space that orbits our planet and sends back its data down to Earth to be seen, observed and marveled at. That telescope is named the “Hubble Space Telescope”. It was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in 1990, and since then has taken over 1.5 million images of our universe.
Many are familiar with the image Hubble took this in 1995, which showcases the “Pillars of Creation” which are a part of a bigger nebula named the “Eagle Nebula”. This single image of a part of a nebula 6,500 light years away became the most, if not one of the most, iconic astronomical images of all time.
After over 30 years of operation, the Hubble Space Telescope has given so much to scientists around the world. The Hubble broadened their eyes and allowed us as humans to understand the universe more and more. However, after some time, NASA wanted to use our technological advances to see deeper.
In 2004, NASA began on a project to make the most powerful telescope to ever be launched in space. And after $10 billion and 12 years, the telescope was finally finished in 2016 and began extensive testing procedures. The telescope took so long to finish just due to its sheer complexity. In 2021, after testing was finished and launching preparations were ready, NASA’s long term project, the “James Webb Telescope”, was successfully launched in Kourou, French Guiana.
The James Webb Telescope (JWST) started taking images shortly after its launch. Soon, 18 years of anticipation would come to an end when NASA released the first full color images of our universe taken by the JWST, including a remake of a certain famous picture not too long after the first releases. This is what the JWST captured:
A side-by-side comparison of images of “The Pillars of Creation," one taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 the other taken by the James Webb Telescope in 2022, reveals the enormous difference in the technology used and the complexity of the telescope itself.
So, why does this matter? The cumulative images from the JWST have shown us, not just people who are inspired by or interested in astronomy, but all of humanity, how far we have come from the beginning, let alone the past 30 years. The difference between the quality of each image by itself shows us how hard we have worked towards advancing our civilization and our understanding of the universe.
I hope that one day these new images of our universe will reside in future infographics, picture books and encyclopedias so that our future generations can look and gaze upon these pictures in awe just as we did when we were kids.