We could be on the cusp of a leap forward in our understanding of the universe. The James Webb Space Telescope is just starting its scientific work.
What will it find? What will we learn? What’s out there?
More than the greatest scientists have ever imagined.
“We are opening the infrared treasure chest,” Webb’s senior project scientist, Dr. John Mather, said, “and surprises are guaranteed.”
Keep your eyes on the images and data that come in from this telescope. Among its many, many projects, one focus of its studies will help us understand the past; another will increase our vision of the future.
Into the Heavens
It has been 30 years since the telescope was first conceived. The complexity of this instrument and the processes required to construct it defy easy explanation. nasa’s chief astrophysics scientist, Eric Smith, said, “When you see Webb go into space … it’s the whole force of human creativity and all kinds of disciplines that push it there.”
Everything had to go more than 99 percent perfectly for this telescope to be built in the first place, to fold up into a rocket, to withstand launch safely, to unfold precisely, to arrive at its destination a million miles from Earth, and to calibrate its invisible-light-detecting instruments.
Everything has gone more than 99 percent perfectly. Its 18 gold-plated mirror segments have unfolded and snapped into place, powered by motors capable of nudging them one ten-thousandth of the width of a hair. Now it hangs in the void, its infrared eyes open, looking at the origin of the universe and the beginning of time, and focusing.
What will this telescope tell us?
Many astronomers are extremely eager to find out. Back here on the ground, more than 2,000 groups submitted proposals for how to use the telescope during its first cycle of service. Of those, 286 were chosen for being likeliest to maximize the scientific knowledge this special instrument is capable of producing. “Early Release” programs are designed to educate astronomers on how Webb is performing and ascertain information useful for later projects. “Guaranteed Time” projects are for the scientists who helped build the telescope. “General Observer” proposals are the main category, aimed at bringing knowledge of the unreachable cosmos home to Earth and to man.
Into the Past
Among all these planned studies, perhaps the grandest overall purpose is to peer farther back in space-time than ever before. The Webb telescope is like a time machine, capturing light that left its sources billions of years ago, from close to the birth of the universe.
Astrophysicist Amber Straughn told 60 Minutes, “It’s like we have this 14-billion-year-old story of the universe, but we’re missing that first chapter. And Webb was specifically designed to allow us to see those very first galaxies that formed ….”
The spectacular Hubble Space Telescope took man far deeper into cosmic antiquity than any other instrument. It showed that galaxies existed far earlier than astronomers expected—as far back as we can see. The Hubble Deep Field images contain some smudged light that astronomers believe originated about 500 million years after the universe was born. They deduce that those structures had to have started their formation hundreds of millions of years before they arrived at the state in which they were observed.
The light from those heavenly bodies and from that extremely early time in the universe is not only billions of light-years away, but it has traveled so far for so long that it has shifted into the infrared spectrum of light. Hubble can’t see that kind of light. Webb can.
“Hubble, when pushed to its maximum, could see galaxies that were teenagers in terms of age,” astrophysicist Blake Bullock said. “We want to see babies.”
The single project with the most time on the telescope in its first cycle will look past 13.5 billion years of matter, energy and space to study thousands of the earliest galaxies in existence.
We are about to see baby pictures of the universe.
Writing for Quanta, Natalie Wolchover described the work of University of Arizona professor Marcia Rieke, a pioneer in infrared astronomy who helped design one of the four main instruments on James Webb: the “near-infrared camera,” or nircam. “She and her team at Arizona are planning to use more than half of their whopping 900 hours of guaranteed telescope time to do a new deep-field survey, one that will peer deeper into the past than ever before. Whereas Hubble could see the faint smudges of galaxies at redshift 10, corresponding to 500 million years after the big bang, Webb should be able to see those smudges very clearly and spot brand-new galaxies germinating farther away, perhaps as far back as 50 or 100 million years after the big bang.
“Rieke and her team will do one better than the Hubble Deep Field. After using nircam to get an image of their dark patch of the sky, they’ll identify the galaxies in the patch that are farthest away and use nirspec, Webb’s near-infrared spectrograph, to take the galaxies’ spectra, from which Rieke and her colleagues can deduce their chemical compositions” (“The Webb Space Telescope Will Rewrite Cosmic History. If It Works,” Dec. 3, 2021).
This could teach us a lot about our early universe and help us understand mysteries such as how black holes developed at the center of galaxies and what “dark matter” is.
The capabilities of Webb bring mankind tantalizingly close to the beginning. Astronomers are still calling it the “big bang,” as if it were random, chaotic and unintelligent. That theory tells us more about the astronomers than it does about astronomy.
The big-bang theory is not aging well. For decades now, astronomers have found discovery after discovery making it more and more obvious that the universe had to begin with an act of creation.
Modern science is dominated by a belief system that evolution produced life on Earth, that a “big bang” produced Earth, and that you shall not discuss what produced the big bang. In other words, it promotes any theory you can summarize as, “There is no God.” Plenty of scientists are sure to explain every image and data set that Webb sends—though it be the infrared signature of the Creator Himself—as proof that there is no Creator.
But as the images and data provide an ever clearer picture, there are many scientists who are turning to face reality. They are willing to look at the data in good faith and see what it actually teaches us, even where it further proves that the universe has design and intent.
“For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made …” (Romans 1:20).
Webb is ready to literally see invisible things from the creation. If it works, we are about to see power, beauty and even more dazzling proof of the great God who made it, and who made us. There is absolutely no other way that all of this could have come together. Scientific knowledge is increasingly aligning with the descriptions of creation contained in the Holy Bible.
Looking at the cosmos, you are looking at the handiwork of God! With advanced telescopes and other extraordinary instruments, the more we learn, the more impressive it becomes.
Into the Future
Another field of Webb-related science points us to the future: that is, what this telescope will teach us about other planets.
The study of exoplanets—planets beyond our solar system—is a new field. It is far easier to see stars and galaxies than it is to see these types of non-radiant heavenly spheres. In the last three decades, astronomers have detected exoplanets by observing fluctuations in the light emitted from stars around which they orbit: A planet blocks a fraction of the light when it passes between us and its star, and it reflects it when it rounds the other side. So far, more than 4,500 planets have been identified, among undoubtedly billions. What we know already highlights how singularly spectacular is the life-shielding, life-nourishing combination of factors that exists only on Earth.
The James Webb instruments will provide clearer views than ever of what is happening on these other planets. This includes recognizing what chemical elements exist there, the existence of oceans, and their atmospheric composition. Using a technique called transmission spectroscopy, they will be able to detect which types of molecules compose the planet’s sky.
“Existing telescopes have already spotted molecular fingerprints in the skies of hot Jupiters [large planets orbiting close to a star], but these are lifeless planets. Detecting the weaker signals from rocky, possibly habitable planets’ skies will require jwst. Not only will the telescope have close to 100 times Hubble’s resolution, but it will see exoplanets far more clearly against the background of their host stars, since planets emit more infrared than optical light, while stars emit less. Importantly, Webb’s view of exoplanets won’t be obscured by clouds, which often prevent optical telescopes from seeing the densest, low-altitude layers of atmosphere” (ibid).
Dozens of the scientific programs will aim Webb at exoplanets, including many specific planets we have already discovered that are in the “habitable zones” of stars—orbits that are the right distance for liquid water to exist and, conceivably, life. For example, five different programs will study a planetary system 40 light-years away called trappist-1, which is thought to have seven Earth-size worlds orbiting one red dwarf star.
Scientists concentrating on this study are interested, as they always are, in the presence of life on other planets. They are looking for what they call “biosignature gases”—evidence of life that is exhaling carbon dioxide, or photosynthesizing out oxygen.
The Bible reveals that Earth is the only place with life in the universe. So they are not going to find what they’re looking for. But the Bible does reveal something extremely exciting about these exoplanets. This is explained in Our Awesome Universe Potential, in the chapter “Why the Universe?”
Scriptures like Isaiah 45:18 and 51:16, Hebrews 2 and Romans 8, among many others, show that God did not make the universe in vain. He has plans to bring life to these planets in the future! The universe is waiting for that time.
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now.”—Romans 8:19-22; RSV
“This passage indicates precisely what all astronomers and scientific evidence indicates—the suns are as balls of fire, giving out light and heat; but the planets, except for this Earth, are in a state of death, decay and futility—but not forever—waiting until converted humans are born the children of God,” Herbert W. Armstrong wrote of Romans 8 in his book The Incredible Human Potential. “Put together all these scriptures I have used in this chapter, and you begin to grasp the incredible human potential. Our potential is to be born into the God Family, receiving total power! We are to be given jurisdiction over the entire universe!
“What are we going to do then? These scriptures indicate we shall impart life to billions and billions of dead planets, as life has been imparted to this Earth. We shall create, as God directs and instructs.”
Through the Bible, God has revealed the understanding that there are other planets out there, surely billions of them, that sometime in the future His Family is going to beautify and populate!
The James Webb Space Telescope is sure to teach us about some of these specific planets. They will be shown to have zero signs of life on them yet. But we will see that the overall conditions are there, just like when Earth was without form and void (Genesis 1:2). All the elements favorable for life are in place—waiting and ready for a Genesis 1-type re-creation event that introduces life!
Look for discoveries from James Webb to give us a much more vivid vision of this inspiring future—if we understand what we are looking at.
Lift Up Your Eyes
These are just two of the exciting areas of study that James Webb will be focusing on and revealing more about in the weeks, months and hopefully years ahead. Just in the first yearly cycle of its use are many more exciting specific projects that will teach us about our universe.
There are specific projects aimed at studying the properties of our own solar system, better understanding the large-scale structure of the universe, extending our grasp of stellar physics, shedding light on supermassive black holes. In just this first cycle of use, 286 specific projects have been allocated telescope time, every one of which is studying some aspect of God’s handiwork and promises to help us better understand His creation!
Astrophysicist Grant Tremblay told Quanta, “It’s going to do amazing things. We’ll be in the New York Times talking about how this is witnessing the birth of stars at the edge of time, this is one of the earliest galaxies, this is the story of other Earths” (op cit).
World events are hurtling toward the violent climax of man’s rule on Earth. Hopelessness and despair are spreading. While human life here deteriorates, while the suffering begins to touch even you and your family, look up.
Like Webb, you will be pointing your vision toward something that will set your mind ablaze. Keep your eyes on what this telescope teaches and the majesty of what it reveals to us about the past and about the future, if we have eyes to see.