New Images of Ancient Galactic Behemoths Live Rent-Free in Our Heads

July 13, 2022 By Alexandra Angelich, angelich@virginia.edu Alexandra Angelich, angelich@virginia.edu

Just because I can’t see something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

As a University of Virginia fourth-year student, I spent several nights a month at the University’s observatory on Fan Mountain, collecting data with the Rapid Response Robotic telescope for my thesis on astronomical imaging. In the downtime, my friend Robbie and I stood outside and squinted as hard as we could, trying to make out the Andromeda galaxy or identify the planets based on their subtle color variations.

Some things were just too far away for me to resolve (even with an accurate eyeglass prescription), and some radiate types of light my mediocre, three-coned human eyes can’t perceive.

After wearing the honors of Honor, and before joining the team here at UVA Today, I spent a few years working as a communicator at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, where I became deeply familiar with the fascinating features of cosmological objects that can only shine in radio light.

Although my star-gazing days are largely over, I’ve never stopped thinking about the vastness and beauty of the universe and my place in it. Maybe that’s why I was so awestruck by the first few images from the James Webb Space Telescope.

The successor to the long-lived Hubble Space Telescope, JWST has been 25 years in the making. Now that it’s finally up there and fully online, the advanced telescope has begun capturing and sending us images of distant objects in both optical light we can see and infrared light we can’t – at least not without night-vision goggles.

Dwelling on the curved reddish lines on JWST’s very first image, above, I was taken by the thought of how huge these galaxies in the early universe must have been, that light from the objects behind them literally changes direction, as a leaf floating peacefully on the river meets a waterfall and plummets. I can’t wait to see what other images of our mind-bogglingly beautiful cosmos are yet to come and take my breath away.

And I’m not alone in the feeling.

Kelsey Johnson, president of the American Astronomical Society, UVA astronomy professor, founder of the award-winning “Dark Skies, Bright Kids” outreach program, and all-around powerhouse, sat on the JWST Advisory Committee and Users’ Committee. She shares my sentiment and agreed to answer some of my squishy, emotional questions about how the first images released from the telescope affected her and her hopes for our quest to better understand the universe.

Kelsey Johnson looks at the camera

Q. When you saw the first image from JWST, what was your gut reaction?

A. “Please let this unite humanity and remind us that we are all part of something unfathomably vast.” 

I think one of the most essential aspects of astronomy is its ability to both inspire and humble us. I dearly hope that the new images coming from Webb will have the power to crack through to even the most cynical among us.

We are seeing photons from these distant objects that no one in all human history has seen before. This light has been traveling across the universe for billions of years before hitting the JWST detector; how fortunate we are to be here to bear witness. 

I love looking at some random tiny little speck of a galaxy in the deep field image, from which we’re receiving light that left like 10 billion years ago, and wondering what that galaxy looks like today. And wondering whether there is intelligent life on some hospitable planet orbiting some arbitrary star in that random galaxy and whether they might be looking at us wondering the same thing.

Q. Which of the JWST images moves you the most, and why?

A. Goodness, that is like having to pick your favorite child! Each of the release images is spectacular in its own way.

That being said, I did start to tear up when the image of Stephan’s Quintet was revealed. I have studied compact groups of interacting galaxies – like Stephan’s Quintet – for years using many wavelengths of light. Seeing the JWST image of the Quintet was like someone you’ve known and loved for decades suddenly coming into focus. Absolutely breathtaking.

Five galaxies interact and bend each other out of shape
This image of Stephan’s Quintet is the highest-resolution version to date of the galaxy cluster, which made an appearance in my dad’s favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (Image courtesy NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI)

Q. What do you find most exciting about JWST and the future of astronomy?

A. The discovery space has been blown wide open. Much of science necessarily proceeds incrementally as we slowly improve techniques, build data sets, and refine understanding. But when we have enormous leaps in technology, like that we are getting with JWST, we are set up for true paradigm shifts. 

Not only do we now have an incredibly powerful new tool to help us understand our place in the universe, but – perhaps more importantly – JWST has the power to ignite passion and curiosity in a whole new generation of scientists to explore new questions we haven’t even thought of yet.

Media Contact

Alexandra Angelich

Assistant Editor for Content Office of University Communications