deep space

More than meets the eye

July 26, 2022


NASA’s highly-anticipated first images from the James Webb Space Telescope lit up the internet and wowed the public. For Jack Singal, associate professor of physics, the images open new windows onto astrophysical processes.

“There’s much more to the light in the universe than our eyes can see,” he said. “Even with amazing vision, we wouldn’t be able to see what the James Webb Space Telescope is seeing.”

Singal’s favorite image from NASA’s initial release on July 12 is the bright, whirling one showing galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 (first image in series, below). Some galaxies appear as arcs due to an astrophysics phenomenon called gravitational lensing, he explained.

“Matter can bend light, therefore we can use the light to figure out what’s going on in these galaxy clusters,” Singal said, adding that gravitational lensing helps scientists measure distances and mass.


These are literally galaxies far, far away.
headshot of Jack Singal
Jack Singal

Requiring three decades and $10 billion to realize, the powerful telescope promises to reveal new information about galaxies, stars, and their planets in the universe.

Unlike the Hubble Telescope that launched in 1990 and remains in Earth orbit, Webb went farther away — 1 million miles from Earth — and can detect infrared light, which is usually outside our visible spectrum. Singal said that in order to understand how galaxies form and evolve, we want to view the ones that are from farthest back in the history of the universe.

“These are literally galaxies far, far away,” he said. “The light that they emitted in visible frequencies arrives to us in infrared frequencies.” By capturing infrared light, the telescope also allows us to learn about planetary systems in the process of forming and exoplanets that scientists have detected around other stars.

In the images released to the public, NASA assigned false colors to the infrared light so that the objects stood out clearly for the viewer.

Singal said another advantage to the James Webb Space Telescope is its ability to break a spectrum of light into tiny frequency bins, revealing lines that correspond with specific atoms and molecules, providing insights about the substances present in exoplanets’ atmospheres.

“The idea that we could know more about the composition of the atmospheres of these planets, and characteristics like their size, temperature, and how far they are from their star, will tell us a lot about how planets and solar systems form,” he said.

Singal emphasized that the first images demonstrated that Webb is actually working as planned — and showcased the telescope’s capabilities. 

“This has been a really long time coming,” he said. “Now we’re looking forward to all the science that will come out of it.”