“we’re missing the first chapter”

How can we see space differently?
James Webb Space Telescope’s Dr Amber Straughn answers

Three people, one big question. In this edition: astro science stars.


Dr Amber Straughn’s 3-minute noodles

“I am interested in answering big questions about our universe. Questions about how galaxies change over time, how they form their stars, and how their black holes grow. Our universe is 13.8 billion years old. Galaxies in the distant past look different from galaxies today.

A galaxy is just a collection of stars. We live in the Milky Way galaxy, which has a couple of hundred billion stars and perhaps trillions of planets. There are probably trillions of other galaxies that are all as big as the Milky Way. Planets are everywhere!

milky way

Are we alone? One of the big questions for astronomers and for humanity is… is there other conscious evolved life elsewhere in the universe? That’s the big one.

It’s very likely that there is evolved conscious life elsewhere in the universe. We obviously don’t have any evidence of this kind of life yet, but given how big the universe is and how life can develop in very harsh environments here on Earth, we have seen how much potential for the development of evolved life there is.

Telescopes are time machines. It’s a very simple fundamental fact of the universe that light takes time to travel. Of course, they’re only time machines into the past. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know how to look into the future.

We’re seeing the sun as it was eight minutes ago. If you’re looking at a lamppost across the street, the light from that lamppost takes a teeny tiny fraction of a second to cross the street and get to your eye. Light from the sun takes about eight minutes to get to the Earth. As we see things that are further away, we’re literally seeing them as they were in the past. By building these big, powerful telescopes, we’re able to see things that are much further away, then we’re able to see them as they were in the past. And that’s really critical for astronomy, because it helps us put together a picture of how the universe has changed over time.

The JWST is going to advance astronomy in really critical ways. The primary driver for building it was to look back in time and see those very first galaxies that were born after the Big Bang – that’s a part of space we’ve never been able to see before. That’s a really critical part of the story of how galaxies change, and we’re missing that first chapter of the story.

It’s going to far exceed capability of any telescopes that we have now. This telescope is also going to be incredible at advancing our knowledge of exoplanets – planets orbiting other stars – and specifically what it’s going to revolutionise is studying their atmospheres. It will watch as planets pass in front of their stars, and look at the starlight that’s filtered through the atmospheres. From that it will be able to tell about the chemical components.

Called the ‘Cosmic Cliffs’, Webb’s seemingly three-dimensional picture is of a young, star-forming region | Photo courtesy of NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

The great thing about these huge powerful telescopes is, it’s also going to do everything in between. We’ll learn about how stars are born within our own Milky Way galaxy, we’ll learn more about that whole process of how galaxies change over time, by seeing galaxies at different time lapses in the universe’s past. We’ll also be able to study objects within our own solar system, from Mars on out.

We can see space differently by looking at different kinds of light. When we look at the world around us, when we look at the stars in the sky, what we’re seeing – what our eyes detect – is optical light. But the thing about the universe is that it’s filled with light that is outside the small range that our eyes can detect. And that’s why it’s so important to build instruments and telescopes that can detect these other types of light, because it helps us put together a more complete picture about how the universe works.

JWST is an infrared telescope. It sees the universe in light that’s a little bit more red than what our eyes can see. And the reason for that is completely driven by the science questions we want to answer. We have to have an infrared telescope to find those first galaxies, and a lot of the really important chemical signatures and exoplanet atmospheres also happen to fall in the infrared part of the spectrum. Things like carbon dioxide, water vapour, and methane, those things that could be signposts to a habitable surface, also fall in the infrared part of the spectrum.

milky way

When we look at the cosmos, we’re also seeing where we came from. The fact that we exist here on Earth, as human beings, is directly attributable to the fact that billions of years ago, in the vicinity of our solar system, a star exploded, and the star itself formed the heavy elements that make us – carbon, and nitrogen, and oxygen, all that good stuff. All of those elements were forged inside of a star that exploded and eventually seeded what would become Earth and what would become us. So when I look up at the cosmos, I see our beginnings, our origins, I see ourselves.

I love this idea that space is for all of us. I think it’s really important to protect that, to make sure that we human beings still have access to places on Earth, where we can go and see the dark night sky. 

A beautiful sky full of stars is an open invitation to everyone to ask these big questions and to think about things like where we came from, and how our universe works, and even directing it back to us. How can we as a species maybe get along better and be better humans here on this tiny little planet, this tiny little rock floating out in the universe? Because right now, all we have is each other.

Time’s up!

What’s so good about this?

Space is big. Sometimes it’s hard to get our heads around. But the ideas that these three astro stars have not only help us understand our universe and where we’ve come from, they’re also forging new paths to make science more inclusive. We shouldn’t settle for a narrow idea of what a scientist is, and we can affect that change by making changes outside science labs. These scientists are showing us not only how to see the universe differently, but how to see humankind differently. Space isn’t just for astronomers. It’s for everyone looking into the night sky.

Katie Dancey-Downs writer profile

Meet the writer

When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She is also assistant editor at Index on Censorship, an award-winning quarterly magazine. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. @Katie_Dancey.

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