The Webb Telescope Shows Us a Mosaic Universe
Have you been following the James Webb Space Telescope news this last week? The photo release has been one of the biggest – literally – events this year. Each photo is also – wait for it! – a mosaic.
How to Build a Big Mosaic
To understand that, you’ll need to know a little background on this $10 billion project. Launched in December, the infrared telescope is positioned about a million miles away from Earth, orbiting the Sun. Eighteen hexagonal, gold-plated mirror segments are precisely aimed, aligned, and angled to form one working mirror. Getting them all in place took months, as engineers here directed tiny motors to make adjustments. Then came calibration and focusing.
Each Tile is Important
The first images just looked like this:
Each marker shows an individual mirror’s view of the same star. The pieces were there – they just weren’t in place, yet.
You know: Like individual mosaic tiles!
The last few months have been devoted to the engineering work that brought us the latest images. Once the mirror segments were working together, they began sending light through to the telescope’s main imager, a near infrared camera called NIRCam.
Infrared light is key to the project. The faint infrared light that it captures has been traveling through space for almost the entire history of the universe, revealing what the first galaxies looked like after the Big Bang.
You might expect an infrared image to look something like our Rouge Universe mosaic wall art. However, the new photos are mind-boggling.
We’ve shared some very large mosaic art with you before, but nothing like the one in this photo of Stephan’s Quintet.This mosaic contains over 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. This, the largest image to date from the Webb Telescope, covers about one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter.
Five galaxies are shown above! Fun fact: The Stephan’s Quintet has an angelic connection. They’re shown in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” as the angels who heard George Bailey’s prayer for help.
This Quintet is like a laboratory for scientists, who can collect data on galaxies merge and interact, trigger each other to form new stars, and even be affected by black holes.
A Star is Born
Don’t start humming any tunes from the movie, just yet. This version of the story is about galactic nurseries, where galactic dust flows and hot young stars begin to form. (Again, this is about Space – not Hollywood!)
This photo mosaic image depicts the “Cosmic Cliffs”. Located roughly 7,600 light-years away, this shows the edge of the giant, gaseous cavity within an area called NGC 3324. The tallest “peaks” in this image are about 7 light-years high. The cavernous area has been carved from the nebula by the intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds by the nascent star’s activity.
It’s impossible to comprehend the sheer size of what’s shown in an image like this. Each twinkle could be something the size of our own Sun. If you need to take a moment to collect your thoughts, it might be best to focus on a more familiar image of our local Star. You know – this happy fellow:
It may seem to be pointless, using our own compass directions as we view the cosmos. However, remember the Southern Ring Nebula – it’s another important celestial feature that scientists are excited about.
Nebulae are formed from dying stars – created from the shells of the gas and dust ejected as they lose mass. This particular star has been sending out rings of debris for thousands of years. Prior to the Webb Telescope, researchers were unable to see the details of the dust rings that were being formed.
This photo shows two stars locked in a tight orbit – but at different places in their life spans. As the fainter star throws out dust and gas, the brighter star helps stir them into the patterns you see here.
It’s a toxic relationship, but it provides some spectacular imagery. Here’s a thought to ponder: As the dust continues expanding infinitely into space, it may well travel for billions of years – eventually forming a planet.
Somehow, an image like Om Universe mosaic art starts to make more sense – showing the galaxy as a mosaic image made from countless parts. Did you know that the Om Symbol signifies the essence of the ultimate reality, consciousness or soul?
A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
The light from these galaxies took billions of years to reach us. This image looks back in time – to within a billion years after the Big Bang when viewing the youngest galaxies in this field. That’s 4.6 billion years ago. The light was stretched by the expansion of the universe to infrared wavelengths that Webb was designed to observe.
Like a huge, intricate mosaic, this deep field image was pieced together from innumerable parts, and taking a long time to assemble. It’s a composite made from images at different wavelengths, totaling 12.5 hours – achieving depths at infrared wavelengths beyond the Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest fields, which took weeks.
You can see thousands of galaxies. However, Webb’s image covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground – all revealed in a tiny sliver of vast universe.
We’re deep in thought about how this image of our own solar system echoes Webb’s photo mosaic.
Everything, it seems, is a mosaic – building larger and larger images from separate parts. From star dust that forms planets, individual stars in a galaxy, and the infinite amount of planets, asteroids, moons, and stuns creating their own systems – there are big patterns, and small tiles that create them. What a wonderful thing to think about, the next time you gaze up at the night sky – or work on your next DIY mosaic project.