View of the distant Carina Nebula as captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA


Column: The James Webb Space Telescope: Revealing our universe’s origin story

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope promises to revolutionize astronomy as it peers deep into our past.
<a href="" target="_self">Rishi Vridhachalam</a>

Rishi Vridhachalam

December 10, 2022
The passing years have taken their toll on the solar system model that hangs from my ceiling. The faded sun shines less brightly, Saturn’s ring precariously dangles from its perch, and Venus has been missing for a while. 

When my eyes refuse to surrender to sleep or my mind wanders from the task at hand, I often gaze upwards and find refuge in our planetary neighborhood. Plopped on my bed, I have endured the blistering heat of Mercury, encountered aliens on Mars, and shivered in the icy depths of Neptune.  

But it looks like I won’t have to just imagine these far-away planets and galaxies. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope that went operational in June promises vivid and dramatic vistas captured in all their glory. 

My fascination with astronomy arises from a deep synergy with the distant stars. As Carl Sagan noted long ago, “Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.” 

The “star stuff” that Professor Sagan refers to are the oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen atoms that originated in the stars more than 4 billion years ago and are the building blocks of all living and non-living things on this planet. 

As the first stunning images from the James Webb Space Telescope were revealed, that same synergy was strengthened and reinforced. Moreover, it sure looks like I have new places to explore. Maybe, I’ll start with the Carina Nebula, a dervish of gyrating cloud and dust and an incubator of newly hatched stars, then head on over to the Stephen Quintet, a cohort of five galaxies in close contact in the constellation Pegasus, and finish my journey in the Southern Ring Nebula, “a sphere of gas and dust belched by a dying star.” 

In the coming years, the Webb telescope promises to divulge secrets of our cosmic history, shed light on the origin of life, and possibly discover potentially habitable worlds and, suddenly, I feel like a kid again in a galactic candy store.