NASA’s Webb Space Telescope offers a window into the cosmos

NASA shared new revelations Tuesday from the James Webb Telescope, the largest space observatory ever made. The new images capture distant galaxies, new stars and planets, and the furthest look into the birth of the cosmos ever recorded. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    NASA shared new revelations today from the James Webb Telescope, the largest space observatory ever made. The incredible images capture distant galaxies, new stars and planets, and the farthest look into the birth of the cosmos ever recorded.

    Our science correspondent, Miles O'Brien, is here to break it all down.

    So, hello, Miles.

    Tell us what it is about this James Webb Telescope that enables it to see farther in distance and further in time than the Hubble could.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, Judy, it has a much bigger mirror. It's 21 feet in diameter. The Hubble's is about six feet, so it can gather up a lot more light.

    The other thing is, it looks in the infrared part of the spectrum. And because of the nature of the expansion of the universe, when you want to see the most distant things, they all live in the infrared part of the spectrum. And so it is seeing things that Hubble literally cannot.

    And, already, it's exciting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So the first spectacular image, Miles, was released yesterday by the White House. Tell us more about that one.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, it's called a deep field.

    It's a time exposure on what seems to be just a dark piece of void. But look at this, thousands of galaxies we have never seen before, took them about 12.5 hours to get this time exposure. Hubble, to do a similar shot, it took 10 days-plus.

    So this is the deepest we have ever seen into space in the infrared. And astronomers are astounded by the detail.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the detail — and we could look at these pictures all day.

    But, as you remind us, it's not just about the pictures.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, the scientists are interested in the data too.

    Look at this exoplanet which orbits around a star called WASP-96b. Using the spectroscopy instrument, they were able to identify water and clouds and haze. And while Webb is not designed to find exoplanets, it may help us find at least the constituent parts for life, although it's not a life finder itself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And another thing you were telling us, Miles, is, this new telescope is able to capture stars as they're being born and as they are dying. Explain what that's all about.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, it's kind of like dust to dust.

    Let's start with the Southern Ring Nebula. This is a dying of planetary nebula, a dying star. And when you look at it, you can see ever so faintly a second star, which astronomers had not previously seen before. The infrared, in addition to looking farther, can cut through the clouds, the dust.

    And then, on the other end of the life spectrum, if you will, let's look at the Carina Nebula. This is a nebula which is a star nursery, if you will, 7,600 light years away. And this image just — it's kind of emotional looking at it. It's so beautiful.

    Astronomers are just stunned by the level of detail and their ability to see things through those dusty clouds.

    Amber Straughn is Webb's deputy project scientist for communications.

  • Amber Straughn, James Webb Space Telescope Communications:

    In this view, we see some great examples, first of all, of hundreds of new stars that we have never seen before. We see examples of bubbles and cavities and jets that are being blown out by these newborn stars.

    We even see some galaxies sort of lurking in the background up here. We see examples of structures that, honestly, we don't even know what they are. Like, what's going on here?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    That's precisely what you want to hear, Judy.

    When a scientist says, what's going on here, that means that instrument is on the cutting edge and there's going to be a lot of discoveries ahead.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, last thing, Miles.

    The fact that Hubble and James Webb can now target the same thing, how does that advance science?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, any time you have multiple platforms looking at the same object, scientists love that, because they can verify their data.

    And what's interesting about some of these web images is, they're not of new locations. We have known about some of these for quite some time. Look at Stephan's Quintet, 290 million light years away. You might recognize. It is the galaxy which is featured in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" when the angel is talking to God. But that's a side thought there.

    But these are never-before-seen details of five galaxies that interact with each other, this cosmic dance actually between four of them. And when you look at that, it's not only beautiful, but you really get a sense of motion and how dynamic it is.

    They are pulling and tugging and bumping into each other, leaving tails of gas and dust and stars. The galaxies, the universe is — can be a dangerous place, Judy. And, sometimes, when we look at, it seems so static and quiet. But, there, you get a sense of the real energy involved.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just like a miracle on top of a miracle.

    You want to hear classical music when you look at these photographs.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, with the quintet. Yes.


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Miles O'Brien, what a great job you have. Thank you.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we are but a tiny speck.

    And tomorrow night here on PBS, "NOVA" has a behind-the-scenes look at the daunting challenges scientists had to overcome to create the Webb Telescope. You can watch "Ultimate Space Telescope" on your local station beginning at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Check your local listings.

Listen to this Segment