The first images from NASA’s James Webb Telescope offer marvelous glimpses of stars and planets billions of light-years away: In what is truly a space opera, the telescope shows them being born and dying, and cosmic matter sucked into black holes.
The telescope is the most powerful space observatory ever built. It does not circle the Earth like its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, but orbits the sun. As well as offering stunningly beautiful images, it is a new step in human understanding of the cosmos, a technological marvel that it is hoped will continue to spread new ideas for decades to come. .
However, it is in the nature of deep space exploration that it also be a milestone in what is not yet known or understood. At the simplest level, the human mind has been conditioned to assume that photographs are images of what exists, or at least existed at the time they were captured.
In this case, we’re looking at scenarios – galaxies, nebulae – that may not have existed millions of years before a small planet called Earth began to form. A “deep field” image of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, nearly five billion light-years away, has brought the galaxies into focus as they were more than 13 billion years ago.
“We’re seeing structures that we don’t even know what they are,” said NASA astrophysicist Dr. Amber Straughn.
In this, astronomy shares common ground with that other cutting-edge science, the study of the brain. Despite all the advances in brain scanning technologies over the past 70 years, the central mystery of consciousness remains as elusive as it has ever been. In his radical book Being You, neuroscientist Professor Anil Seth offers a bold new view of what it can be and how it can interact with – and even control – what we see as reality.
The Holy Grail in astronomy is not consciousness but how the cosmos came into existence and in doing so created life itself. One of the images analyzed starlight as it passed through the atmosphere of a sweltering Jupiter-like planet just 1,150 light-years away. Although the planet is too hot to hold liquid water, the images revealed the presence of water vapour, once again raising the possibility that life could indeed exist, or did exist, elsewhere. It’s a possibility that’s temptingly thrown around by many space adventures, including a former NASA pioneer, the Cassini spacecraft; its 13-year exploration of Saturn found oceans of liquid water, deep beneath the icy crusts of three of the planet’s moons.
However, while such findings reveal the existence of conditions capable of sustaining life, they have yet to yield evidence of life itself. So the question remains in the realm of philosophy, posing a binary in which every alternative is truly mind-boggling: either life exists elsewhere, raising whole new questions about what forms life can take; or it doesn’t, leaving the amazing mystery of how it could have once happened. The only reasonable response is fear.