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NASA's James Webb telescope will change how we view the universe

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

NASA and its international partners have just released the first set of images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, the most sophisticated telescope ever sent into space. And I am telling you, these images are spectacular. And what's more, they contain information that's going to change our understanding of the universe that we live in. We've got NPR's Joe Palca with us to talk about all these things. Hey, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hey there, Rachel.

MARTIN: I mean, these are just the most spectacular photos. I don't know what I'm looking at, but just as art, they show a clarity to our universe that we really haven't seen before.

PALCA: Well, they definitely are eye candy. You know, when - they sent this telescope up back in December, and all along, while they were getting it ready to hand over to the scientists, they wanted to get something that would knock people's socks off and be scientifically relevant for these first set of images. And they built them up to a big furor and they just - they've just finished releasing them in the last few minutes.

MARTIN: Let's talk about...

PALCA: They are spectacular.

MARTIN: Yeah. So let's talk about what they say, what they mean. I mean, the picture I'm looking at right now, I mean, the colors, first of all, are fantastic. It looks like this kind of hole and there's light emanating from it. This is the Southern Ring Planetary Nebula.

PALCA: Yeah. That's right. So what it is, is it's a star that's exploded, and it's driven gas out into a halo that's about a half a light year across. And they've seen this before. This isn't the first image, but the detail in this image is spectacular.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PALCA: And it's the same with some of the others. I mean, you feel almost like you could fall into them. The one that I was - that was actually released last night was this so-called deep field, which is you basically point at what looks like a blank patch of sky. And then you hold the camera steady for 12 hours, and you get this thing, which is all this - these dim objects in the background, and you feel like you would fall into it. And there's galaxies all over the place in this image. And some of them are, you know, the earliest galaxies that have ever been imaged by a telescope ever.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the reason for this telescope in the first place. I mean, this is what it was designed to do - right? - go find these galaxies.

PALCA: Yeah, exactly. I mean, there are many kinds of things the telescope can do. But if you listen to Heidi Hammel, she's a scientist on the - interdisciplinary scientist on the James Webb team, you'll sort of get the idea of why we're seeing this image, first of all.

HEIDI HAMMEL: So the very reason that we designed the James Webb Space Telescope, the reason it is a unique, infrared-capable telescope, was to be able to see the very first galaxies that have formed in our universe.

PALCA: And the reason infrared is important is that these galaxies are so far away that their light has now been stretched out. Once, it might have been in the visible spectrum. Now, it's been elongated to the infrared spectrum. So if you don't have an infrared camera or an infrared telescope, you're not going to see them. So that's one of the things they're going to get.

MARTIN: Right. So what comes next? That seems like such an insufficient question.

PALCA: Well, these pictures - these are the pictures that NASA's selected to say, here's an example of what these things can do. Now, they - scientists clearly have an idea. You know, they get their turn, essentially. They'll be looking at planets. They'll be looking at star formation. They'll be looking at galaxies. They'll be looking at stars dying. It's going to be wild.

MARTIN: NPR's Joe Palca. Thank you so much, Joe.

PALCA: You're very welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.