An old Roman philosopher said, “There is no easy way from earth to the stars.”
Nearly 2,000 years after Seneca’s death, we still haven’t made it, but we are getting closer.
The product of two decades of work by thousands of scientists and technicians, the James Webb satellite was launched in December of 2021.
It has traveled a million miles, only a fraction of the distance to the sun, our nearest stellar neighbor. But out there in darkest space, it can detect light from 80 billion trillion miles away.
Now, the Webb satellite is sending back its first images, captivating the mind and waking the soul.
The telescope took some infrared snaps of Jupiter and its rings, which made it look like a cloud-crossed sepia moon in an old western. But this giant had moons of its own, including Europa, which may swaddle an underground ocean.
There is Stephan’s Quintet, an apt title for a picture that has the feel of some metagalactic music. Four galaxies gather in a gravitational dance while a shy fifth watches from a distance.
The Carina Nebula picture might be mistaken for a Christmas card with its craggy mountains and its bright starlit night.
But maybe that’s as it should be. A nebula is a mass of cosmic clouds of dust and minerals that acts as the birthing room of stars. In the Carina Nebula, you can see the arrival of baby stars, a labor that takes less than 100,000 years.
Perhaps the most compelling image is the Webb’s First Deep Field View, a picture of a galaxy cluster whose sheer size and stark beauty are worthy of a better name than SMACS 0723.
This mesmerizing image, the earliest record of the formation of our universe, reveals thousands of galaxies color-coded by their composition.
What is most amazing is all of this in a patch of sky the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s distance from the eye.
It’s also where science and faith play well together.
No creation myth can explain the cosmic journey from the first eruption of the universe to the stardust that turned into carbon that turned into life. Only faith, though, can contemplate a reason that it happened at all.
Science brought us to the question it cannot answer.
Is this boundless universe just for human delight and demystification, or do we have some servant role in a greater cosmic creation?
The answer may be in our stars.