“We are made of star stuff.” When the astronomer Carl Sagan said that famous line, he was reminding people that much of the matter of our bodies was created within the stars long ago. He wanted people to know, we are marvellous, and our story is too.
Humanity’s story took a new and interesting turn when we travelled back in time 13 billion years. After over two decades of design and planning, on Monday NASA released the first image from the James Webb Space Telescope, which revealed the deepest infrared view of the universe, ever. This new deep-field image is much more detailed than earlier images captured by the Hubble telescope. Once again we are gawking in awe at the universe.
While there are a few interloper stars in the photo, nearly every dot in the image is a galaxy. For a sense of scale, if you could hold a grain of sand at arm’s length up to the sky, that speck is the size of the view. It is one minuscule sliver of our universe, filled with thousands of galaxies, each with billions or trillions of star systems and each of those with their own planets.
On Tuesday, NASA released even more images from the telescope, including views of the Carina and Southern Ring Nebula as well as notable clusters of galaxies.
The world watched as the images were shared. Moments like this are rare, not just because telescopes this powerful are few and far between, but because collective experiences are too, at least ones so overwhelmingly positive. That is its own feat, and it’s what space exploration does: It reminds us of our inherent connection. Viewing images like these can also provide a profound sense of insignificance — they offer a sense of proportion and understanding of just how small we are on the grand scale.
Bound by our bodies and our planet, we lean on telescopes, rovers, planetary missions and the like to extend our reach beyond our little cosmic neighbourhood. With these first images, Webb has ushered in a new era of exploration.
The telescope has many missions, but perhaps most notably it will stare out into space to look for evidence of life. It will do this by peering into the atmospheres of exoplanets, those planets that orbit other stars.
Our universe is filled with dust and gas, so scientists need infrared light, a wavelength that allows us to bypass that pesky material, to see through it. Through its power to peer deep into the universe, the telescope will aim to solve mysteries in our planetary systems including our solar system, NASA says: It will “look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it.”
Deep field images show a moment frozen in time — galaxies wrap around one another, swinging past and tearing their dusty, star-riddled arms apart in a violent ballet. Stars are born, birthing new solar systems full of planets; galactic glitter sprinkles the screen as if splattered with a cosmic paintbrush. Each speck of light in that image, each swirling swath of colour, contains potentially trillions of planets, many of which are like ours.
“Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return,” Dr Sagan said. Perhaps that’s why we feel so overcome staring at the ocean or looking at images of the cosmos. Telescopes allow us access to ancient time, to the earliest days of our story and to bigger questions that we’ve been asking since the beginning of human history: How? Why? Are we alone?
Humans are explorers by nature, and it’s no surprise that as soon as we could explore the stars, we did. For thousands of years humans etched stars on rocks and painted constellations on cave walls. We’ve been looking up, echoing a cosmic gaze that is built into our bones, blood and history.
When we look up, we look for ourselves. Dr Sagan once said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” and that could not be more true. We long to understand why we’re here and to find meaning in a world where meaning is so often difficult to divine. Telescopes like this remind us that in spite of our specific challenges on Earth, the possibility of connection still exists.
Now that Webb is online, working and already sending extraordinary photos, we can not only continue asking the hard questions, but also possibly, someday, have answers to them. To understand our environment in this way is to understand ourselves. To gaze at the cosmos is to gaze back at our history. These speckled, swirling, bizarre galaxies are a part of our past. It is one perhaps less accessible to us, but nonetheless just as important.
Yes, we are made of star stuff, and perhaps much more. We are not just humans bound to a blue rocky planet in a galaxy. We are the universe calling ourselves home.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Shannon Stirone is a science writer and editor who covers space travel and the human connection to space exploration.