Thanks to the James Webb space telescope, we can now see vastly into the universe past what we've previously known. On Tuesday, NASA released the never before seen first images from the James Webb Telescope. The James Webb is the first of its kind. Some wavelengths in the universe cannot be seen by the naked eye, including different types of heat waves. James Webb uses infrared technology to photograph these wavelengths in deep space, producing images with incredibly clear never-before seen clarity.
This illustration shows the James Webb Telescope in outer space. The James Webb is the strongest, most technologically advanced telescope to date.
Credit: NASA/ Adriana Manrique Gutierrez.
Webb launched into space on December 25, 2021 and began its million mile journey to capture images of the universe and to look for signs of life in the vast expanse. The ten billion dollar telescope is protected by a 20 foot sun shield the size of a tennis court and has hexagonal mirrors that unfold and come together after launch. The telescope has a life expectancy of 20 years. Scientists are hoping that Webb will reveal how the first galaxies were formed as early as 13 billion years ago.
Webb (Nircam) captured the first deep field, a sliver of the universe containing clusters of Galaxies and stars dating back as early as 13 billion years ago. The image is the oldest image we have of the cosmos.
Image courtesy Nasa/Esa/Csa/STSCI
What does all of this mean for people of faith? Many Catholics who are science enthusiasts are excited. For one, this new technology has the potential to reveal how old the universe is and how the first galaxies were formed. It’s important for Catholics to remember that science does not counter our faith, it affirms it! According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because of the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God (CCC 159).
The Webb Nircam capture of Stephan’s Quintet, a cluster of 5 galaxies.
Photo Courtesy NASA/Esa/Csa/STSCI.
A great question that many people may be wondering about is: How is it possible to see what happened 13 billion years ago from the present? The answer lies within the speed of light. Telescopes are able to look back so far into the past because the light refracted from the cosmological events that happened long ago (as early as right after the Big Bang) are just now reaching the telescope.
A capture of a giant star-forming region dubbed the “Cosmic Cliffs” located within the Carina Nebula. The Cosmic Cliffs were captured by James Webb.
Photo courtesy Nasa/Esa/Csa/STSCI
One of the hot debates within the Catholic Church right now is if the Earth is young or old. The topic revolves around the creation account in Genesis. Typically old earth theorists believe that the universe is billions of years old. Young Earthers would believe that the earth was created 6,000 years ago by tracing genealogy in scripture.
Old earth would believe that the Genesis creation account is mainly Hebrew poetry, but still hold that some things from the creation account are human, such as Adam and Eve were real humans that actually existed. Both sides would have a different interpretation of the new photographs from Webb according to their worldview. For instance, old earth creationists would say that the light that hit the telescope took 13 billion years to travel to the telescope because it is how long ago it happened. From the moment of the event until now, the light from the event has been traveling. Young earth creationists may have a few responses. One example would be that the cosmological creation account happened so fast that it was beyond the speed of light, and that light is only catching up.
In conclusion, the new photographs from James Webb will spark interesting conversations within the church, and reveal new, never before seen expanses of space that we have never seen. Understanding how the universe works and that it is compatible with faith is essential. In the beginning God said “Let there be light”(Genesis 1:3), and for the first time, we are looking back in time to see the relation between that light and the creation of the universe.