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Inspiring a sense of wonder in the universe

By Jay Watson

You don’t have to be a space geek or even a casual “Star Trek” fan to be mesmerized by the images recently released by NASA.

The stunning images of star clusters and other celestial phenomena were made possible by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which launched on Christmas Day 2021 and became operational in July after traveling a million miles from Earth.

In one infrared image showing a tiny sliver of the universe – approximately the area covered by a fingertip when held up against the sky – the heavens blazed with thousands of never-before-seen galaxies. Other NASA images showed nebulae, black holes and dying stars.

It boggles the mind to see these pictures and imagine the multitudes of solar systems and planets within each of the distant galaxies. And to know a JWST image is a minuscule sampling of the universe, a proverbial drop of water in the cosmic ocean.

The images also represent a deep look back in time, as the light detected by the telescope has traveled for billions of years to get to our galaxy.

The telescope is named for the late James Webb (1906-92), NASA administrator during the “space race” of the 1960s. He was appointed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to build the then-fledgling agency into one that could land men on the moon and return them safely to Earth – all before the end of the decade.

“The space program during the 1960s was singularly driven by one mission: get to the moon and do it before the Soviets beat us to it,” explains Jim Webb of Hopewell Township, the son of James Webb.

“My father, however, insisted that while doing so the nation make every effort to leverage the moment and demonstrate to the world what a democratic system of government could accomplish, as well as prepare the U.S. for undisputed leadership in science and technology for the remainder of the century and beyond,” he said.

Amazingly, NASA and the 400,000 engineers, scientists, technicians, managers, corporate partners, university students and others working under Webb’s leadership accomplished the task in seven-and-a-half years.

“The lunar landing on July 20, 1969 was considered to be the greatest engineering and scientific feat in human history,” noted Jim, an artist.

In keeping with Webb’s vision, winning the race to the moon was only the beginning. There was so much more to learn about our solar system and far beyond.

Planning for a super space telescope began in the early 1990s. In 2002, NASA sought and was granted Patsy Webb’s permission to name the telescope for her husband.

It’s hard to top a moon landing, but the James Webb Space Telescope will have a lasting impact by shedding light on the origins of the universe.

“The James Webb Space Telescope is considered by many to be the most audacious and complex engineering and scientific instrument ever created by humankind,” said Jim. “So, one might argue the name choice is quite fitting.

“While my father was never one to seek the limelight, there’s no doubt in my mind he would be very proud of the many thousands, inside and outside of NASA, who created this marvel of a ‘time machine’ which has captivated the imagination of the entire world – from school children to the most accomplished astrophysicists and cosmologists – and will continue to do so for decades into the future.”

Rutgers University astrophysicist Kristen McQuinn, who had early access to data from the James Webb Space Telescope, also noted the new fascination with space.

“While JWST is designed to be used by professional astronomers, what we learn about the universe through JWST is for all of us,” she said in an interview with Rutgers Today. “So engaging people of all ages and backgrounds in science by demonstrating JWST’s capabilities is a critical part of the success of the mission.”

The public is likely to become even more interested in space in the coming weeks.

On Nov. 15, the uncrewed Artemis I mission to orbit the moon launched, potentially setting the stage for a new NASA effort to put astronauts on the moon. Artemis I is not this year’s only lunar mission.

NASA’s CAPSTONE spacecraft arrived at the moon on Nov. 13 after launching in June and is now orbiting to gather data for a future space station.

South Korea’s first robotic space probe, Danuri, launched in August and is scheduled to arrive in the moon’s orbit in mid-December.

And a private company, ispace of Japan, is aiming to land a SpaceX rocket with lunar rovers on the moon.

Has this “quest to new frontiers” ignited your passion for the cosmos? If so, there is a lot that can be enjoyed from Earth on a clear night in a “dark sky” area away from light pollution, including planets, constellations, galaxies, meteor showers and more.

New Jersey has some great astronomy clubs, including the New Jersey Astronomical Association, Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton, Amateur Astronomers Inc. of Cranford, the Skyland Star Gazers of East Hanover, Sheep Hill Astronomical Association of Boonton, the North West Jersey Amateur Astronomers of Blairstown, the North Jersey Astronomical Group of Montclair, the Morris Museum Astronomical Society, the South Jersey Astronomy Club, the Astronomical Society of the Toms River Area and the West Jersey Astronomical Society of Willingboro.

These clubs sponsor star watches and star parties to encourage the public to enjoy views of the night skies through powerful telescopes. Some are located at observatories.

Looking into space compels us to look back at our Earth. It is stunningly amazing that even in these clear views into the cosmos and back in time, our planet remains our only verification of life. It must be our global moral imperative to do all we can to protect this place for as long as we can.

To learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope and see incredible images, go to https://webb.nasa.gov/

Jay Watson is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.

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