As It Happens·Q&A

New James Webb Telescope images help us understand the universe and ourselves, says astrophysicist

NASA released five new images from the James Webb Space Telescope on Tuesday. Nathalie Ouellette, the Canadian outreach scientist for Webb, talks about the significance of the photos.

Photos released by NASA have 'something for everyone who loves space'

An enormous mosaic of Stephan’s Quintet is the largest image to date from the James Webb Space Telescope, covering about one-fifth of the moon’s diameter. It contains more than 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. It's one of the five new images from JWST released by NASA on Tuesday. ( NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI)

Nathalie Ouellette was speechless when she saw the new images from the James Webb Space Telescope.

"I was just taken aback by how much detail you can see," said Ouellette, the Canadian outreach scientist for the project. "The resolution of this telescope is remarkable." 

On Tuesday, NASA released five new images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that show important cosmic events, such as star births and deaths, in unprecedentedly high resolution. The world's biggest and most powerful space telescope was built in a collaboration between NASA and the European and Canadian space agencies.

Canadian scientists pitched in to help build the telescope's Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS), which helps it lock onto a target, and the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), which is made for the study of exoplanets and faraway galaxies. 

"We can be proud as Canadians to know that every single image that comes out of Webb was enabled by the Canadian eye on board," Ouellette said, referring to the FGS.

Now, she and her colleagues at the Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx) at Université de Montréal are excited to see what else the space telescope can capture.

She spoke with As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan about the new images. Here is part of their conversation. 

Nathalie, describe to us what you can see in these images. 

There are galaxies — faraway galaxies, but also galaxies in collisions — nebulas, from the death of a star to the birth of a star, and a spectrum of an exoplanet atmosphere. So there's really a little bit of something for everyone who loves space.

If you were just a laywoman looking at these pictures, what do you think you would see?

The thing that I would find surprising is how much stuff there is.

So when people think of space, they tend to think of emptiness. It's the void. There's nothing there. And if you're in a light-polluted area like Montreal or Toronto, the sky looks quite dark, not a lot of stars.

But if you have a tool like Webb, boy, does that open up a whole new window on the universe. You see it everywhere you look – there's a galaxy, there's a gas cloud, there's stars. Just the sheer quantity of stuff that we can see is amazing. 

And as part of the team, you actually got to see these images a couple of weeks ago. What was your first reaction when you saw them for the first time?

I was just speechless. Flabbergasted. And we took these images very quickly in just a few hours a few weeks ago, and we put them together for the reveal today. When we really unpack the telescope and pull out its full potential and take our time with it, it's going to make incredible images and discoveries.

Your enthusiasm is so infectious. For the rest of us who don't quite understand the significance of these photos, what do these images actually tell us about the early universe? 

The early universe actually looked quite different from the universe now. You have these supermassive black holes that are being born and all the structure we have around us now was born from those very early, turbulent times. And we couldn't look at that part of space and time with the tools that we had before – partially because they weren't powerful enough, but also because there's a little tricky thing called redshift in astronomy where because we are in an expanding universe, light is actually stretched out as it travels through space.

So light that shines at a blue colour or a visible colour from a faraway galaxy is actually stretched into the red or even the infrared. So you need an infrared tool like the Webb telescope to look at the early universe. So we're seeing galaxies that were invisible for Hubble [telescope] using Webb. 

What becomes the next question for you that's prompted by these pictures? 

We always want to know more. There are some structures in the nebula that we saw today that we don't understand, so we want to really dig into that data, try to figure out what is going on scientifically, and then, of course, take more images like it of different objects to try and understand those objects, too. 

This side-by-side comparison shows observations of the Southern Ring Nebula in near-infrared light, left, and mid-infrared light, right, from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Astrophysicist Nathalie Ouellette said that the elements created during star deaths make life as we know it. (NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI)

And what might that data tell us about ourselves? 

One thing that I love thinking about is every single little piece of star dust that you see in there, those are the same elements that built us. 

So we have the death of a star that is shown. New elements are created and blown into space, and some of those elements can only be created in those star deaths, and they end up being able to create humans or life like us. So the calcium in our bones, the carbon that's all around us; the gold, the platinum in our jewelry – that's all from these cosmic phenomena that we can study.

Really, we're trying to understand ourselves and how life came to be on earth and how our own solar system was formed.

Written by Olsy Sorokina. Interview with Nathalie Ouellette produced by Chris Trowbridge. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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