…astrophysicist Jane Rigby talks about the beauty of space, the possibility of life on other planets, and how the Webb sees hidden parts of the universe.
Rigby works at nasa Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, and has been part of the James Webb Space Telescope team since 2010, as an astrophysicist and, since June, as the J.W.S.T.’s senior project scientist. She is an animated storyteller, often punctuating her points with hand gestures and minor adjustments to her black horn-rimmed glasses.
Since the European Space Agency launched nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope from French Guiana, on Christmas Day, 2021, the telescope has hovered in space about a million miles from Earth. During its voyage, the J.W.S.T. unfolded like a piece of origami, releasing an array of solar panels, a powerful antenna, a honeycomb of golden mirrors, and a sunshield that looks like a set of silver sails. Scientists then spent more than three months aligning its mirrors with nanometre precision.
The first telescopes were made of two pieces of rounded glass in a tube. Galileo Galilei discovered Jupiter’s moons, and thus showed that the Earth was not the center of the universe, with a telescope that could magnify twenty times. Six decades later, Isaac Newton completed the first successful reflecting telescope, using a concave mirror that concentrated light much more efficiently. Over the centuries, telescopes have grown and improved enough to spot increasingly faint and faraway celestial objects. The Webb represents a culmination of this progression. It is a hundred times as powerful as the Hubble Space Telescope and sees infrared light that is invisible to the human eye. (Light falls on a spectrum from longer wavelengths to shorter wavelengths: infrared, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, ultraviolet.) It was designed, in part, to gather light that has been travelling to Earth since shortly after the big bang. When astronomers point its mirror toward the edges of space, it sees the universe as it was thirteen billion years ago—close to the literal dawn of time.
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