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NASA’s Web Telescope captures new views of the universe

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has barely opened its eyes and the universe is new–more mysterious, more beautiful than humanity ever dreamed. Largest telescope to fly into deep space on Christmas Day 2021 Its primary goal is to express the “let the light” moment when they are And galaxies first flared up after the Big Bang. Recently, we’ve seen some impressive images as the web goes back to its origins.

It dives deep into a cosmos of the early web—250 hours of exposure that stretches the imagination.

Scott Pele: And what are all these little dots?

Brant Robertson: All these tiny dots are galaxies, some of which are larger than our own.

Astrophysicist Brant Robertson flew us through 130,000 galaxies — half never seen before — giant swirls of billions of stars, some like our own Milky Way, and others, well, out of this world.

Brant Robertson: This galaxy in the center of the screen is what we call the Cosmic Rose. Just by chance, it looks like a rose. You can see that dusty red irregular galaxy.


Scott Pelley talks to Brant Robertson about the discovery of the Webb Telescope

60 minutes

BRANT ROBERTSON: You know, space is more crowded than you think, and galaxies actually interact with each other. They will actually merge. So, I’m now zooming in on a pair of galaxies that are merging together, interacting. You can see that they are disturbed, because the gravity of one galaxy jerks the stars away from the other galaxy.

Scott Pelley: They’re running into each other.

Brant Robertson: They’re running into each other.

Robertson of the University of California, Santa Cruz, helped lead the Webb’s most ambitious mission, the Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey.

BRANT ROBERTSON: Well, we’ve discovered the most distant galaxy in the universe, which is the farthest from us that we currently know. I want to share that with you. Can I show you some pictures?

Scott Pelley: Please. I would like to see it.

BRANT ROBERTSON: So we keep zooming in, we keep moving, and now this red spot that you see over there, that galaxy, that’s a galaxy. This galaxy is more than 33 billion light years away.

Scott Pelley: The Beginning of the Universe How long after the Big Bang did this galaxy form?

Brant Robertson: It’s amazing. This is only 320 million years after the Big Bang.

The farthest galaxy ever, right there, doesn’t seem like much, but astronomers could fill textbooks by analyzing its light spectrum.

Brant Robertson: So we can actually measure things like how fast it’s forming stars. We can measure the amount of stars in galaxies. We know the size, ’cause we know how far it is. And we know the general age of the stars in the galaxy. So, we know a lot.

The oldest galaxies, so far, formed when the universe was 2 percent of its current age. And the baby galaxy burned stars at a furious pace.

Brant Robertson: It’s like a hummingbird. You know, the heartbeat of this galaxy is so fast.

Scott Pelley: What do you mean by that?

Brant Robertson: Well, this galaxy is about 100 times less massive, but it’s forming stars at the rate of the Milky Way. So it’s really like a hummingbird, the heartbeat of this galaxy is racing.


James Webb Space Telescope

NASA, SkyWorks Digital, Northrop Grumman, STScI

As of 2021, few people’s hearts were racing $10 billion observatory Ready for launch.

Earlier that year we were among the last to see the web in California before it folded into a 15-foot-wide Nakercone.

Scott Pelley: Well, in a way, it’s a lot bigger than I imagined.

Twenty-five years in the making, the web is named for a NASA administrator. Northrop Grumman engineer Amy Lowe showed us, below, the silver sun shield, as big as a tennis court, and 21 feet. Gold plated mirror for gathering light.

Scott Pelley: There are 18 of these hexagonal mirrors. But when you fold them out, do they all work in concert as one mirror?

Amy Lowe: That’s right. All 18 images will make a very nice, solid image.

Webb climbed aboard a European rocket into an orbit around the sun a million miles away. To set up for observation, engineers used a star to align those mirrors. But the image was speckled with what looked like digital noise artifacts—which forced a closer look.


Carina Nebula


Matt Mountain: These were not artifacts of the detector. They were not strange stars. The entire sky was filled with galaxies. There was no empty sky. And that’s when I went, “This telescope is going to be amazing.”

Matt Mountain leads the Web’s operations as president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

Scott Pele: No empty sky? What does this mean?

Matt Mountain: In almost every picture we take now, we see galaxies everywhere. Meaning, we took a simple picture of a planet in our own system, Neptune. You know, this beautiful orb was sitting there and we saw some rings. In the background are the galaxies again. This tells us that our universe is full of galaxies. We knew this in theory but when you go to the night sky, we’re used to saying, “Well, look at the night sky, we can see those stars.” We can say no more. We now have to say, “Look at the night sky and there are galaxies everywhere.”

Scott Pelley: We call it space because we thought there was nothing there.

Matt Mountain: No Empty Sky with James Webb. That’s what we discovered.

Matt Mountain says the web is a reminder of how much we don’t know. For example, galaxies are rushing away from each other at greater and greater speeds, defying gravity. It doesn’t make sense to me. So scientists hypothesize that there must be unseen factors at work. These are called dark energy and dark matter.

Matt Mountain: And whenever you hear the words ‘dark energy’ or ‘dark matter’, that means we don’t know what it is. We are not that imaginative. But it is an energy, it is 95% of our universe. And we have no idea what it is.

Scott Pelley: Wait a minute, 95% of our universe is made up of dark energy and dark matter and we don’t know what that is?

Matt Mountain: Right. We are lucky if we understand 4% of our universe today. Astronomy is a very humble discipline.

Humble but, with the web…

…also thrilling.

This is Purdue University astronomer Dan Milisavljevic, Starstruck, chatting with a colleague.

Even Wilbur, who is not an astronomer, was strained to see what all the fuss was about. Millisavljević researches that they exploded in the reactors that produced the first heavy elements from a universe of simple helium and hydrogen.

Dan Milisavljevic: Whenever a supernova explodes, it creates the raw material for life. The iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the oxygen we breathe, love the oxygen that’s being produced in supernova explosions.

Scott Pell: The late astronomer Carl Sagan used to say, ‘We are all made of stars.’

Dan Milisavljevic: That’s right.

The web reveals unprecedented details at the heart of this explosion.

Dan Milisavljevic: And the web is most sensitive for our purposes, understanding what’s going on inside the explosion that we couldn’t see before, because it only emits infrared light.

Infrared light is designed for web viewing. Like a night vision camera, the telescope is sensitive to thermal radiation, the remnants of light reaching us from dawn. The problem is, infrared is invisible to the human eye.

Scott Pelley: When you first pull the web data, what does it look like?

Joe DePasquale: Basically, it looks like a blank screen.

Alyssa Pagan and Joe DePasquale are astronomers and science photographers at the Space Telescope Science Institute. A web infrared image looks like this until they match the color of wonder with the darkness filled with data.


Alyssa Pagan and Joe DePasquale

60 minutes

Joe DePasquale: So we take the longest wavelengths of infrared light and color them red. The next, shortest wavelength will be green, and then the shortest wavelength we get from the web is blue. And so, the way our eyes work, we take those three color channels, combine them to create the full color image that we see on the web.

Among their favorite images is this cluster of stars with the not-so-wonderful name – NGC 346. Cosmic dust sculpted into ripples by interactions between stars and the Tarantula Nebula, a star-making nursery in the background of galaxies.

Scott Pelley: I believe you are the first two people in human history to have seen these images.

Joe DePasquale: It’s quite an honor.

Alyssa Pagan: Yes. It’s a great honor and it blows your mind every time.

There will be many touching revelations. Webb was the first to detect carbon dioxide in the sky of a planet 700 light years away. It will continue to search for planets with atmospheres that could support life.

At the other end of the time scale, Erica Nelson, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, thinks her team may have made a discovery that she says will shatter the theory of how the early universe formed.

Erica Nelson: Either it’s wrong, or it’s a huge discovery, and we think it’s a huge discovery.

More observations are needed but Nelson is investigating what could be five giant galaxies that appear to have formed very quickly after the Big Bang. If they are confirmed, astronomers may have to revise the galaxy formation timeline.




Erika Nelson: And that’s the most exciting part, of this telescope, of this extraordinary instrument that we’ve put in space, is finding things that we didn’t expect, that we can’t explain. Because it means that we have to revise our understanding of the universe.

Brant Robertson, who showed us the oldest galaxy ever found by the James Webb Telescope, told us that the record for oldest won’t stand for long.

Scott Pelley: How far back can you go to the origin of the universe?

BRANT ROBERTSON: Well, JWST is so extraordinary that if you spend enough time, you can probably find a galaxy that formed in the universe. It’s really that powerful.

Scott Pelley: Will the history of astronomy be divided before the web and after the web?

Matt Mountain: Yes. I believe it will.

Matt Mountain, who runs web operations, told us the observatory could last up to 25 years, perhaps long enough to understand space and time and the origins of life.

Matt Mountain: We’re seeing a universe we’ve never seen before. We thought it was there, we hoped it was there, but now we see it for the first time.

Produced by: Aaron Wiese. Associate Producer, Ian Flickinger. Broadcast Associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by: Michael Mongulla.

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Scott Pele

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