This Christmas, astronomers got a very special present: the long-awaited engineering marvel that is the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb), finally launched! Over the last month, it has traveled nearly one million miles from Earth while unfolding its massive mirror and tennis-court sized sunshield in what has been described as “the most difficult and complex deployment sequence ever attempted in space.” The transforming telescope is now in position and will spend the next few months aligning its mirrors in preparation for its real work to begin. The astronomical community is on the edge of its seat waiting to see what the first images will reveal this summer.
Webb is intended to be the successor to the beloved Hubble Space Telescope, which has been delivering spectacular images of swirling galaxies, stellar nurseries and remnants of supernova explosions for over 30 years. Webb will take up Hubble’s mantle for a new generation, capturing the universe with unparalleled resolution in the infrared, a slightly longer wavelength of light than the visible light Hubble captures. The list of targets it will observe in its first year alone covers everything from planets, moons and asteroids in our own solar system to massive clusters of ancient galaxies and everything in between.
Peering into the Past
Arguably, Webb’s most eagerly anticipated observations will be of the most distant galaxies humanity has ever seen. Light’s finite speed means that the farther away an object is from us, the farther back in time we see it. Due to the expansion of the universe, the light emitted from the earliest galaxies has been stretched beyond Hubble’s ability to see. As a result, Webb will be able to peer back farther into the universe’s history than Hubble and will help us better understand how our universe developed over time. One might even say, how our universe…evolved?
From ancient civilizations to modern scientists and everyone in between, we all share a desire to understand where we as humans came from and what our place is in the universe. At BioLogos, we have found that evolutionary creationism offers a compelling answer to these grand questions. God chose to work through the elegant mechanisms of evolution over billions of years to bring about the rich biodiversity of life that we are surrounded by today, while instilling his image on humans as his representatives in and to creation.
Descriptions of evolution typically begin about 4.5 billion years ago on early Earth with the first simple organisms. But, as any astronomer will be quick to point out, the story of life began long before then. Before there could be life on Earth, the planet itself needed to be formed, accreting together the necessary materials from the nascent Sun’s surrounding dust and gas. And before that, the heavy elements that make up our planet—oxygen, carbon, iron, and more—had to be built up through fusion in the cores of earlier generations of stars and their subsequent deaths as supernovae. And even further back, these early stars were formed in galaxies defined by lumps of dark matter in the early universe. Back and back the story goes, all the way to the unknowable moment of the Big Bang. In a sense, the universe has been evolving for 13.8 billion years.
Webb will reveal new insights into this cosmic evolution. Close to home, its gaze will be directed on ancient asteroids like Ceres and Pallas, which carry clues about the Solar System’s formation. Spectral analysis of Comet 88P will help us understand the role that icy, dusty comets may have played in delivering the necessary raw materials for life to Earth.
Projecting into the Future
Farther afield, Webb will peer into the atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting other stars in search of potentially habitable planets and maybe even indicators of life. And with its expansive 21-ft mirror, Webb will capture the faint glow from the very earliest galaxies, giving us a rare glimpse back to our primordial universe just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. With each new observation, we will gradually fill in gaps of our cosmic origins story and inevitably generate new questions to explore for years to come.
The eminent Cambridge physicist and theologian, John Polkinghorne, described God’s use of biological evolution as bestowing creation with its own “fruitful potentiality.” Webb promises to further illuminate how God granted not just the Earth but the cosmos itself the very same fruitful potentiality.
As NASA Administrator Bill Nelson keenly points out, “The promise of Webb is not what we know we will discover; it’s what we don’t yet understand or can’t yet fathom about our universe.” May God continue to be revealed more and more in comets, exoplanets, nebulae and galaxies through Webb for many years to come. I join Nelson in his excitement for Webb’s future: “I can’t wait to see what it uncovers!”
May God continue to be revealed more and more in comets, exoplanets, nebulae and galaxies through Webb for many years to come.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.