New space telescope images a game changer, San Juan College astronomer says

David Mayeux looks forward to adding images to his AstroFriday presentations

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON − After a wait of approximately 20 years, the first images to emerge from the James Webb Space Telescope last week had some high expectations to meet.

In the mind of San Juan College Planetarium director and astronomy professor David Mayeux, they did not disappoint.

"It's unprecedented. It's fantastic. … Oh, my goodness," Mayeux said, describing his reaction when the first several images were unveiled by NASA officials on July 12.

Mayeux said the images he has seen made him think of how he felt in the 1990s when the images from the first space-based telescope were released.

"I remember when the first Hubble (Space Telescope) came out and how far beyond anything else they were," he said.

The images from the Webb telescope represent a similar leap in quality, he said, with two of them making the most striking impression.

More:NASA releases 'sharpest' images of the universe from James Webb Space Telescope

A near-infrared image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.

"My favorite is the galaxy cluster," he said, referring to a photo of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, which NASA officials have described as the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date.

It includes thousands of galaxies, including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared spectrum, according to NASA, and shows how the cluster appeared 4.6 billion years ago. But Mayeux pointed out its most awe-inspiring feature is its gravitational lensing − a phenomenon by which the combined mass of the galaxy cluster magnifies more distant galaxies, distorting their light and appearing to bend or arc them. A close examination of the image shows many of those galaxies looking more like amoebae than classic, spiral-shaped formations.

Mayeux compared the effect to a funhouse mirror and said looking at that image gave him a feeling of gestalt.

He also cited the raw beauty of the Carina Nebula, an image of a young, star-forming region called NGC 3324. The image is filled with "peaks" and "valleys" and has drawn comparisons to the famed "Pillars of Creation" image from the Eagle Nebula captured by Hubble, cited by many people as the most arresting interstellar image ever produced.

The "Cosmic Cliffs" of the Carina Nebula are featured in this image from the James Webb Space Telescope.

'I'm nothing but impressed with them'

While NASA officials revealed only a handful of images last week, Mayeux said it is clear that the Webb telescope already is well on its way to establishing itself as a game-changing tool.

"They have certainly improved upon Hubble, which is not a slam on Hubble," he said. "I'm nothing but impressed with them."

Mayeux also marveled at the engineering that was required to build the telescope, launch it and steer it into place − a permanent orbit 1 million miles from Earth where it is mostly shielded from the sun's light and warmth, leaving it free to peer into the deep recesses of space and detect the faintest of infrared signatures.

More:What the first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope tell us

That placement of the satellite meant it would be impossible to ever repair it if something went wrong during its journey, Mayeux said.

"Kudos to them," he said, referring to everyone who participated in building and launching the telescope. "They were really innovative in preparing this project and meticulous in implementing the details of it."

Mayeux said he looks forward to accessing the new images as quickly as he can and adding them to one of his popular AstroFriday programs at the San Juan College Planetarium.

"It'll be interesting to see how this translates to the Planetarium dome and its curved surface," he said. "But I hope it's just a matter of downloading the material and inputting it to the memory of the star projector."

This mosaic of Stephan’s Quintet is the largest image to date from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

Looking ahead to NASA's next mission

Mayeux is equally enthusiastic about the prospects of the upcoming Artemis 1 mission, during which an uncrewed Orion capsule will be launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and sent on a month-long journey around the moon. NASA officials are planning a late-August or early-September launch for the mission, which is the precursor for a manned mission to the moon in 2024, if things go according to plan.

Mankind's potential return to the moon isn't likely to make the same gee-whiz impact on the world's consciousness as the first manned mission to the lunar surface did in 1969, Mayeux said. But it could lead to a new era in manned space exploration that could yield life-changing results, he said.

"I don't think it will capture (the public's imagination) the way it did 50 years ago," he said. "But it might in a different way. I do hope it sparks more interest in manned space travel … and it has great potential to do that."

More:James Webb Telescope photos are dazzling. What to know about the NASA space camera.

Mayeux said the Artemis program missions will present NASA with a great opportunity to illustrate for people the difference between science and science fiction, especially with the plethora of movies and TV programs devoted to interstellar travel these days − something that remains well beyond mankind's reach for now.

But that doesn't mean Mayeux doesn't see a role for those stories in mapping out the human race's future among the stars.

"You need visionaries," he said, referring to the way programs such as "Star Trek" have inspired countless young people to pursue a career in the aerospace technology that has made space travel possible. "You need to have a vision for this."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.