On March 11, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) completed its ‘fine phasing’ alignment stage, producing an infrared test image of a star with the highest quality resolution of any space image ever. JWST’s giant leap could mean further evidence for the big bang theory.
After almost 30 years of setbacks and 10 billion dollars spent, the Webb team’s success in snapping this test photo is monumental. The JWST still has several weeks of final preparations before scanning the cosmos, as no telescope has before. Yet, proof that the telescope is functioning beyond expectations already poses huge implications for cosmologists and physicists alike.
What’s So Special About the Jwst?
At 21 feet and 3 inches across, the JWST’s honeycomb design consists of 18 individual panels, producing 18 different images. Each panel is made of beryllium coated in a thin layer of gold and must be precisely aligned with the JWST’s external mirror to correctly refract and overlay their individual images and produce a master image.
The infrared photosensitivity of the JWST is unmatched, as it was designed to capture images from the farthest reaches of the universe with the faintest of light (100 times fainter than the Hubble Space Telescope). The further away we peer into space, the older the light we are receiving, so we will effectively be able to take snapshots of the early days of our universe. English particle physicist Brian Cox explains the utility of this capability well in an episode of his “Ask Me Anything” podcast.
“…if you want to look far out in the universe, which means far, far back in time, then the further out you look, the further back in time you go and the further the light is stretched, So the Webb is able to look at the formation of the first stars and the first galaxies…So you could ask the question, ‘Are there objects that are so distant that the light traveling from them began its journey close to the big bang itself’ and the answer is yes…You can look about 13.8 billion years in the past, back to the origin of the universe,” said Brian Cox.
The Religion vs. Science Dilemma
To witness the birth of our universe in greater detail than ever before may bring untold revelations and adjustments to current formation theories, including the Big Bang theory.
It’s no secret that science and religion have long been at odds. Still, the validation of scientific theories regarding the origin of the universe will continue to challenge theologies of religions that believe firmly in the Bible’s creation story.
Answers In Genesis (AIG), a Christian ministry that discusses evolution and biological sciences, in light of the Bible, considers JWST’s attempt to peer back into the origins of the universe as a purely humanist approach. In other words, AIG sees this mission as ultimately an arrogant one in which man tries to define the universe according to his standards, rather than God’s.
They believe that research suggesting the invalidity of the six-day creation story from the Bible is erroneous and misguided.
“Sadly, many in this particular camp (sometimes ignorantly) have actually compromised Scripture by accepting the secular ideas being pushed by the JWST media at NASA (i.e., the big bang and evolution), thus rejecting the plain (biblical) reading of Genesis 1 and instead reinterpreting the days of creation to long ages. This is an unbiblical way of thinking that essentially elevates man’s fallible ideas as the ultimate standard (i.e., humanism) over the infallible Word of God,” wrote Rob Webb of AIG
In an interview with TMZ, media’s beloved astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson shares his thoughts about this conflict. Tyson posits that the JWST’s mission is not intended to challenge religion. Instead, this impasse only comes about if and when religious people assert that evolution and evidence supporting the Big Bang be replaced in schools with the six-day creationist story from the Bible.
“You only end up challenging religion if religion bursts forth and says, ‘from our holy books, this is how the universe must be.’ Then you’re kind of setting yourself up for the data to then respond. Modern religious people, like the 21st century- I would call them ‘enlightened religious people’ are not anchoring the truth or falsehood of their religion on what a scientist discovers through their telescopes… Religion for them is a spiritual place of comfort and happiness and relationship,” said deGrasse Tyson.
Potential for Discovery Is Unlimited
In addition to elaborating on formation theories, JWST will be used to search for exoplanets to identify elements found in their atmosphere and track objects in our solar system. With the ability to decipher chemical signatures from exoplanets, the JWST may finally propose the existence of life on other planets with probable evidence.
The excitement for this powerful telescope lies not just in what it is built to see but rather what it may stumble upon accidentally. For example, if the Webb team can locate an atmosphere likely to harbor life, it will forever alter our understanding of life.
“I suppose the golden scenario that we can only dream of is that it would see a planet that with oxygen in the atmosphere because if you see a planet with a lot of oxygen in the atmosphere, that’s probably a signal that photosynthesis is happening on the surface of the planet, and the Webb is going to do that…In some sense, it will discover things that no one imagined. But at least it will allow us to characterize planets and see the birth of the first stars and galaxies,” said Brian Cox.
The new developments in the James Webb Space telescope excite the scientific community while posing frustration for some religious communities. Whether it confirms the existence of life on an exoplanet or further unravels the creation of the universe, the images captured by the JWST are expected to be monumental.
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Featured Image Courtesy of: Nasa.