James Webb photographed something no one expected: our own loneliness

News hardware James Webb photographed something no one expected: our own loneliness

If you need a lesson in humility, look up to the sky. The infinite reminds us how insignificant we are on the scale of the universe. The sublime images taken by NASA’s ultimate space telescope, the James Webb, show us above all our own loneliness.

The universe, the stars, the planets and the Orion Nebula

The universe is an inhospitable place where life is extremely unlikely to evolve. The night plays us a dark spectacle, where a few rare stars dance. It is only in the vicinity of a very small fraction of these luminous points that it is possible to see life emerge.

From Earth, it is quite easy to observe huge clouds of gas and dust. These clouds have a name: fogs. We can admire the beauty of these giants for only two reasons:

  • Some of the particles that make them up emit their own light.
  • Other particles reflect the starlight.

Let’s take an example “close” to us: The Orion Nebula. In the night sky, just below Orion’s belt, our mortal eyes can see its splendor. The Orion Nebula is 1300 light years from Earth. This tiny piece of the universe spans 24 light years, or about 227 trillion kilometers.

Protoplanetary discs in the Orion Nebula. NASA/ESA and L. Ricci (ESO)

Fogs are fascinating. Stars and planets form and deform around them. Compressed by gravity, dust and gas give birth to stars. New points of light in the sky are constantly appearing around Orion.

However, the bubbles of this bubbling space activity are extremely far apart on our humble scale. Even in the most compact star clusters, the distances are thousands of astronomical units (one astronomical unit is about 150 million kilometers, this is the distance between the Earth and the Sun), even light-years. Fortunately for them, the stars are almost never alone.

Very often several planets orbit a star. Astronomers have discovered a total of 42 protoplanetary ionized discs (called proplyds) in the Orion Nebula. Behind this barbaric expression are new clouds of dust that will one day end up compacting again to form planets, natural satellites and asteroids.

Protoplanetary discs captured by ALMA, the VLT and the Hubble telescope.

James Webb photographed something no one expected: our own loneliness

Protoplanetary disc around the dwarf star PDS 70 captured by the VLT. ESO,

James Webb photographed something no one expected: our own loneliness

The image of this NASA scientist showing us our own loneliness

All these objects, we know them better thanks to Hubble and the countless other space telescopes originating from the various observatories around the world. It is by multiplying the views and the analyzes that we have arrived at all these formidable conclusions.

With James Webb, we have a particularly effective new tool for marveling at the infinitely large.

In a tweet dated October 7, 2022, ESA (European NASA) scientist Mark McCaughrean shares an image of the Orion object 294-606 in all its glory… and its loneliness. Orion 294-606 is a collection of a star and a protoplanetary disk. In the picture, you can see how the disk darkens part of the star, from which the light escapes above and below.

The most fascinating thing about this picture is what it doesn’t show. The disc extends over approximately 300 astronomical units (ie 300 times the average distance between the Earth and the Sun). Nothing around him. The stars visible in the corners of the image are just over a light-year from the disc.

In all its solitude, Orion 294-606 remains much closer to many stars than to our Sun.

Even in this vast universe, Earth, located almost at the end of one of its galactic arms, is a particularly isolated planet. The star closest to us, Alpha Centauri, is 4,367 light years from Earth.

Hubble and James Webb: the space telescopes that are unveiling the universe

You get it, we owe the image shared by Mark McCaughrean to the most amazing space telescope of our time: James Webb. Specifically, the image is from the instrument NIR Cam. It was captured in an infrared band around 1870 nm, enough to reveal to us hydrogen emission and absorption flashes.

James Webb is not ready to rest. After photographing the most distant known objects and taking spectacular images of nebulae, galaxies and planets (even within our solar system), the space telescope continues to be the talk of the town.

on the left a photo taken by Hubble, on the right the same, James Webb version

James Webb photographed something no one expected: our own loneliness

in parallel, NASA is increasingly considering the possibility of extending the life of James Webb’s orbital counterpart, Hubble. If this expansion becomes a reality, we will benefit from the snapshots and scientific discoveries of this telescope set for quite some time.

What to faint several times in front of the greatness of the universe, and especially to understand it a little better. Waiting, the eternal silence of these endless spaces terrifies me.

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