In the unfathomable darkness and time that is the universe, every star is an omen of hope, a promise of life and shelter, like the lights of a distant ship on a cold sea.
And so, courtesy of the James Webb Space Telescope, here is another reminder of the fecundity and generosity of nature: thousands of galaxies, trillions of stars and unnumbered planets, a boundless realm of possibilities stretching back 13 billion years in a small patch of sky in the constellation Hercules.
At lower center is a spiral galaxy known as LEDA 2046648. It looks like a dead ringer for the great galaxy in Andromeda, M31, or its twin, our own Milky Way galaxy — except that the LEDA galaxy is a billion light-years away.
One billion years ago, when the light from this image was emitted, the first multicellular organisms had emerged on Earth and were groping their way up the evolutionary ladder toward plants, fish, dinosaurs, humans and whatever comes next.
One of the Webb telescope’s main missions is to explore the age when the first stars and galaxies began to light up the universe. The Webb’s secret sauce is its ability to detect infrared rays, or electromagnetic radiation of longer wavelengths than visible light that is thus invisible to human eyes. With the expansion of the universe, objects billions of light-years distant are moving away from Earth so fast that their light is “redshifted” to longer infrared wavelengths, which the Webb telescope can see.
The universe as we think we know it came into being with the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago. Almost all the objects in this image are distant galaxies; the few stars among them are distinguishable by their six-pointed diffraction spikes. Some of the background blobs are thought to date from just 300 million years after the cosmos began.
Studying such primeval galaxies, astronomers say, should help to clarify what sorts of stars first condensed out of the Big Bang and how supermassive black holes came to occupy the centers of nearly all galaxies today. The preliminary results of these investigations have already surprised scientists by hinting that there might be more early galaxies and massive black holes than traditional models of cosmic origins have predicted.
This image of the LEDA galaxy was obtained on May 22, 2022, while astronomers connected with the European Space Agency were testing the telescope’s workhorse camera, the Near InfraRed Camera or NIRCam; ESA partnered with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency to build and run the telescope. On Jan. 31, ESA released the image to the public as the Picture of the Month.
Viewing this snapshot of eternity, it’s hard not to wonder whether microbes or something else were making a similar go of it in LEDA 2046648 or one of the other luminous blobs in the image, and whether we will ever know.