A Never-Before-Seen Look at Our Universe
Arun Venugopal: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Arun Venugopal in for MHP.
Participant: Décollage. Liftoff. From a tropical rain forest to the edge of time itself. James Webb begins a voyage back to the birth of the universe.
Arun Venugopal: On Christmas day, 2021, NASA launched the James Webb space telescope into space from French Guiana. It is the most powerful space telescope of all time, with a 270-square-foot mirror that can collect infrared light from some of the most far-flung stars and galaxies in the universe.
President Joe Biden: Light where stars were born and from where they die. Light from the oldest galaxies, the oldest documented, light in the history of the universe from over 13 billion. Let me say that again. 13 billion years ago. It's hard to even fathom.
Arun Venugopal: That was president Biden yesterday, setting up the very first image from the telescope. NASA releases four more today. These are the deepest and highest resolution photos of the universe ever captured, revealing galaxies as they appeared up to 13 billion years in the past. For more on this, I'm joined now by Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro, an Assistant Director for Space Policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Ezinne, thanks for being here.
Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro: Thank you for having me.
Arun Venugopal: Describe first, if you could, the image the president released last night for our listeners, literally the colors and the shapes. What do you see when you look at it?
Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro: When I look at that image, what I see is something that first of all, surpasses the iconic Hubble, deep field image that we saw as the deepest view of the visible universe that we had ever seen over a decade ago, and I see lights from 3 billion years ago. I see red lights from 4 billion years ago, and I just see a clearer and more stunning version of our universe that shows galaxies that have been formed just after the big bang, and it truly is exciting.
Arun Venugopal: From a scientific perspective, what are you seeing in this image?
Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro: Yes, so we are seeing different galaxies. The image is filled with galaxies. We are seeing galaxies measured at different times. Some of the galaxies tier lower left are measured at 3 billion years ago, as was mentioned by the president. Some were measured at 4 billion years ago, some help to confirm what we understand about the big bang and when it formed, and what you actually are looking at is the culmination of just six hours of image collection.
This is something that would've taken other telescopes, including Hubble, weeks or months to put together, but this is only six hours of information. Imagine what we can see when we layer together all the pictures we take over the span of the year or five years. It really is truly remarkable.
Arun Venugopal: Tell us for people who are familiar with the images from the Hubble space telescope, what makes these new photos different?
Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro: This is an image that surpasses the iconic Hubble, extreme deep field is what is called image, which was the deepest view of the visible universe that humanity has ever seen. This is a much clearer image. It has greater precision. If you think of moving from standard definition TV to the highest resolution or the resolution we have in today's movie theaters, that really is what you're looking at. You are seeing this with so much stunning clarity.
Arun Venugopal: This was launched into space on Christmas day, 2021. Why did it take six months to get these images back?
Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro: That's a great question. It takes a while to actually conduct what we now know to be one of the greatest engineering feats ever attempted. This telescope first had to travel a million miles away from earth, which took about three weeks, and then usually when we send a big spacecraft or really any spacecraft into space, we have to turn it on when it gets to its location, we have to test it and then we have to turn on the instruments. You start by turning on, and powering on lots of the instruments, and remember, this is an instrument that has a sun shield, for instance, that is the size of a tennis court.
Another technological feat that is frankly revolutionary that had to happen here was that we don't have a rocket that is the size of a tennis court. This telescope had to borrow from origami. We had to fold it for it to fit into a rocket, and then it had to unfold itself in space and work. Here we have a 21-foot mirror, 250,000 tiny shutters that open up to capture light from up to a hundred space objects at once. That requires time to make sure that all those things unfolded properly, to make sure that all the instruments power on properly, and then to start collecting science.
Arun Venugopal: I can't even imagine the stress of all the scientists who are in, I guess, had NASA in the control room waiting for this to actually play out and hopefully fingers crossed work, which apparently, it did. What are some of the questions that scientists are hoping these images from the Webb telescope can help answer?
Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro: We have a saying in the space community, particularly at NASA that failure is not an option, and some of Hubble fans will remember that Hubble had a bit of a mistake. The camera was put on backwards. We had to send astronauts to fix it, but when you're sending something a million miles away, we don't have any astronauts who are a million miles away. There was indeed a lot of pressure because we had to get it right the first time, and that really is what's unprecedented about the technological feat that thousands of engineers and scientists focused on to get this to work correctly.
Arun Venugopal: Okay, y'all, quick pause. We have to take a quick break. We'll have more from space in just a moment on The Takeaway.
Arun Venugopal: Back with you on The Takeaway, I'm Arun Venugopal. We've been discussing NASA's release of the first images from the James Webb telescope, the most powerful telescope ever sent into space. Some of you already saw the first image and shared your thoughts with us.
Meg: This is Meg calling from Los Angeles, California. I see a more vast, more diverse, and more interesting universe than we have ever before imagined, and it's a reminder that there is so much more to learn and that we should be humbled by how much we really don't know.
Michael: This is Michael from Duluth, Minnesota. What I see is such awe and wonder leaning back at me like a suddenly open door into what we could have only dreamed of seeing in our past. I see how existentially small we are yet infinitely privileged to witness things incomparably larger than us. I see something that connects us all, something that can dissolve our earthly worries. I see something truly beyond. I see the evidence of things on scene, the divine work of God.
Kip: What do I see in that image? I see what Joni Mitchell has known all along.
We are stardust
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Kip: We are Stardust. We are golden. You look at that and look at the infinite number of galaxies out there, and we are all a part of it in one small and very large way. This is Kip and I'm in Portland, Oregon.
Arun Venugopal: Thanks to all of you for sharing, and here with me again is Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro, an Assistant Director for Space Policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Tell me, was there a moment as a kid where all this, your career, began to take shape for you when you decided this is exactly the life you want to live?
Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro: I think I was nine years old when I learned that Walt Disney and a few others always wrote down problems on a notepad and pen that they kept near their bedside, and I started doing the same because I always found problems because in the '80s we didn't really have color ID. I thought it was important to know who was calling in case we didn't want to pick up.
When it all started for me, I wanted to be an inventor. I wanted to create new things and it's so great to be part of that and to realize some of these successes after putting the time that it takes to work on hard problems and not know what will happen the next day and what the solution will be the next day, but slowly, surely with the team of others, because it's just not something one person can do alone, solve problems like these.
Arun Venugopal: I remember as a kid in the '80s also just when [unintelligible 00:10:44] comment, I'm not sure even the correct pronunciation anymore but was flying by my daddy had a telescope, so we put up on the roof and then our neighbors would come by at 4:30 in the morning. It's the same thing that I think people were doing all over the world really is trying to see this thing that comes by once in 76 years. An event like this really does capture the attention in a way that nothing else does, doesn't it?
Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro: It does indeed and this is just the beginning. This release will only scratch the surface at once far exceeding what previous flagship telescopes have achieved, but also really barely beginning to put this telescope's full capabilities to work. We do not even know questions to ask that the telescope will answer for us in a year. That's something I find most exciting about this promise that the telescope holds. I just know that the future is going to be determined by even brighter minds in the world who will continue to break these new barriers and show us more of an understanding of this universe that we're in. That is humbling and inspiring and makes me get up in the morning every day.
Arun Venugopal: Where is the Webb Telescope right now?
Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro: It is a million miles away from earth. It is orbiting a million miles away while looking deep into space. To give you a comparison, as I mentioned, Hubble was repaired by astronauts. Astronauts usually are around the international space station, which is at 400 kilometers above the earth's surface. Now compare that to moving a million miles away. It's really far and really deep into space. It allows us to get a greater peak of our universe, given all the powerful instruments that are on it right now.
Arun Venugopal: Some might be looking at the state of our home planet right now with all its problems like climate change and natural disasters and wars, and be asking, "Why bother money on studying space right now? It is really expensive, we've got other things to do." What would you say to that?
Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro: I would say I understand. It's a conflict we all share in the sense that we have one of humanity's greatest engineering feats, whether it is today's telescope reveal, whether it's when the Brooklyn Bridge was built, whether it's when the first High-rise building was built or the first time there was the invention of another technological feat that did not seem applicable to our lives currently. One thing that we have learned that I find especially inspiring about the work that we do in science is how that not only inspires us and gives us a sense of wonder, but how it directly affects the lives of humans on earth today.
I'll give you two examples of that. The first is when you look at this telescope, what's not clear is that there are over 300 universities and organizations and companies from at least 29 states within the US and 14 countries that have worked on this for over 20 years. There is a farmer's son somewhere in the middle of California who spent the last 20 years, possibly all of his career working on a piece of the sun shield.
There is someone in the middle of Alabama who has done the same. This is something that provides a livelihood for people over their entire careers. Then the second thing is really how this gets transferred to our lives here. Everyone talks about Velcro and little gadgets that resulted from technologies used in the space race and used for the Apollo program. Well, when you think about the engineering feats here, the ability to fold something that is large and delicate at the same time, and then unfold it after it has withstood all the vibrations that one withstand within a rocket launch.
That technology is transferable to medicine to help with assisted surgeries, where robotic arms are assisting doctors with surgeries. It could help in a number of other areas. We have a lot of ability to transfer the technologies that we use for these inspiring scientific innovations to really benefit life here on earth as well.
Arun Venugopal: Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro, Assistant Director for Space Policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Thank you for joining us on The Takeaway.
Dr. Ezinne Uzo-Okoro: Thank you.
Arun Venugopal: All right, folks, a few more of your word paintings here. We asked you to describe one of the new images from the James Webb Telescope we've been talking about. This is the Deep Field image from Monday. Here's how you described it.
Participant: Breathtaking, beautiful, majestic.
Participant: I believe that's a glimpse into infinity.
Participant: What I'm looking at looks like a light show from the inside of a roller skirting rink when I would go as a kid.
Arun Venugopal: Always good to hear from you at 877-869-8253. We'll see you back here tomorrow. I'm Arun Venugopal, in for Melissa Harris-Perry, this is The Takeaway.
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