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'We'll learn so much!' Webb Telescope's wow factor huge for McLean County observer

The pinpoints of light in this NASA image of the deep field from the James Webb space telescope shows clusters of galaxies.
The pinpoints of light in this NASA image of the deep field from the James Webb space telescope shows clusters of galaxies.

A McLean County stargazer is over the moon about the first images released from the James Webb Space Telescope, millions of light years beyond the moon. The telescope launched at Christmas and until now has gone through startup routines and tests. It's now ready to do the science.

Sandullah Epsicokhan is a solar system ambassador who works with the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena to tell the NASA story to clubs and schools in central Illinois. He lives south of Bloomington.

After a 10-year wait for the launch of the telescope, Epsicokhan said the images of a cluster of galaxies is everything he'd hoped to see.

"And more! I first saw those pictures of the Deep Field and Hubble did that. The difference is in the sharpness and the detail. First off, it took Hubble two weeks to gather that information. That's a lot of telescope time. They were able to do this in less than a day with Webb," said Epsicokhan.

The Webb replaces the aging Hubble Telescope that is still operating. Epsicokhan said the detail in images of things that are close to the edge of the universe is truly something to behold.

"One way to describe it is they pointed it at a point in the sky that's totally black as far as we can see. And it's like looking at a grain of salt at arm's length," said Epsicokhan.

The further away the stars are, the redder and older the light appears to us. And he said there's a lot of red in the light from four billion years ago. For years every night before he goes to bed, Epsicokhan looked at the NASA website for pictures of background galaxies. And the first ones from the Webb were revelatory.

"They look like little points of light or stars. But they're not. They're actually galaxies. And the ones that are very, very, very red are very far away," said Epsicokhan.

The early images include a look at the southern ring planetary nebula and other formations.

"Then they had Stephens quintet, which is five galaxies, one very close to us which show the details of two galaxies that are merging right now," said Epsicokhan. "They're all interacting with each other. And the Carina Nebula, which is pretty close, that's about 7,600 light years away, it's within the Milky Way. Because they had infrared, they could see into the clouds and see stars we've never seen before and look at the interaction. These stars that are forming in the nebula that's been being developed by other stars that push the gas either toward or away from the stars."

The Webb telescope sees much more into the infrared part of the spectrum than does Hubble, he added.

"It's like being able to detect the heat of the body of a honeybee on the moon from Earth. So, a very, very sensitive instrument," said Epsicokhan.

Epsicokhan said because of the sensitivity of the infrared instruments, much of the challenge in building the telescope was finding ways to keep it cold enough to operate — at a temperature close to absolute zero. A sun shield helps do that. He said when the Webb telescope was first envisioned 20 years ago, the technology did not exist to do all that was desired or needed. Developing that tech was part of the reason for the delay in the $10 billion Webb project.

He said a lot of wonderful science will come from the new telescope that will peer into the early history of the universe from its vantage beyond Earth's orbit. Meanwhile, Epsicokhan simply takes joy in the newest images from the distant past.

"You say, wow, look at that! That was forming right after the Big Bang. What's going on with that galaxy? How did they form? How did they meet? We'll learn so much! There's no way to express how this is going to affect us in understanding our universe," he said.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.