The James Webb Space Telescope reveals the universe as you’ve never seen or heard it before

Click to Play Video: 'James Webb Space Telescope Reveals a Universe of Sights and Sounds'

The James Webb Space Telescope reveals a universe of sights and sounds

It is the universe as we have never experienced it before. The James Webb Space Telescope is sending back incredible images from deep space, which leading scientists believe will “change astronomy forever.”

It’s not just that we can see space and time billions of years ago. The magic is that we can see anything.

While its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, offered some incredible views, Webb, which was developed in partnership with NASA and the Canadian and European space agencies, can look even further back in time and show us more detail about what lies beyond. of the planet Earth. .

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Take the recent release of the Pillars of Creation which was first captured in 1995 by Hubble. In the original image of the area, which is considered a part of the star-producing galaxy, columns of gaseous clouds that look like long fingers reach into the sky.

What we couldn’t see before, and what the Webb telescope now reveals, are all the stars hidden behind the gas.

That’s because Webb sees infrared light, which is normally invisible to humans.

Pillars of Creation. Taken by the Hubble Telescope (L) and the James Webb Telescope (R).


By capturing infrared light, Webb can see objects that are so far away that the light they emit takes more than 13.5 billion years to reach Earth. That means Webb is also like a time machine, in that he can see what the universe was like when the earth and sun formed.

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However, what Webb is returning is invisible to humans because we can’t see infrared light.

So it’s the job of Joe DePasquale and Alyssa Pagan, imaging science developers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, to translate Webb’s data into something visible.

Joe DePasquale, Senior Science Imaging Developer, creates images of the James Webb Space Telescope.

“We cannot see in the infrared. So there has to be some level of translation here. But we use the physical meaning as true physical science to represent color,” Pagan told Global’s The New Reality.

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With the help of NASA scientists, Pagan and DePasquale break the images down into wavelengths. “We apply color according to those wavelengths. So the shortest wavelength filters that we have, we use blue for those. And as we go to longer and longer wavelengths, we go to greens and then to reds,” says DePasquale.

Scientific imaging developer Alyssa Pagan translates Webb’s infrared images into colors we can see.

Joey Ruffini/Global News

The end result is mind-blowing images like the mountainous-looking cosmic cliffs of the Carina Nebula captured by Webb.

“What we’re seeing when we look at these images is the raw material for life,” says DePasquale.

“We are understanding the universe. We are understanding ourselves. It’s so intriguing to get this new perspective, this bigger picture. A lot of people can say, ‘Oh, it makes me feel small,’ but I think for a lot of people it actually makes you feel unified, connected, part of something that’s so great and so beautiful. So you’re part of something that’s amazing.”

An image of the Carina Nebula taken by the James Webb Space Telescope.


In their own right these images are sensational, however a Canadian scientist now adds another level of excitement to all of this.

Matt Russo, a physicist at the University of Toronto and a specialist in sonification, is working with musician and friend Andrew Santaguida to add sound to the universe.

“The whole process felt very natural because we combined things that we are passionate about: music, astronomy, mathematics, computer programming, science, communication, all of these things in one package,” says Russo.

Matt Russo, a physicist and sonification specialist at the University of Toronto, creates sounds for Webb’s images.

His first effort to sonify an image was with the Trappist-1 solar system, first captured by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in 2017.

“[It] It is an amazing solar system with seven Earth-sized planets. But they were also locked into a musical pattern called orbital resonance. And that made it really natural to turn their movements into musical rhythms and tones,” says Russo.

They did the Trappist sound for the fun of it, then NASA took notice.

“Just on our own, (we started) sonifying different things that (NASA) had released and we’d send it to them and they’d just start putting it out on their own. And ultimately that led us to work for them professionally.”

Andrew Santaguida, musician, working with Russo to sonify images of Webb.

Brent Rose/Global News

Some of the sonifications have been met with skepticism from the public, such as when they made the sound of a black hole.

“There is a real sound wave detected in space in a cluster of galaxies. And we could see the waves in the image, which means we can extract them and re-synthesize a sound,” says Russo.

“Some outlets would say that it is real sound recorded from a black hole, as if it had a microphone in space, which we know would not work for various reasons. That’s why when we do sonification, it’s important to present it exactly for what it is: that it’s data converged into sound.”

Now Russo and Santaguida are working on the latest images from the James Webb telescope.

They are taking the spectacular images that DePasquale and Pagan have created and running them through a software system designed by Russo.

According to Russo, sometimes the sound of the data can be a pleasant surprise. Other times, they need to be a bit more creative to figure out the best way to represent something in the image. Russo says they always try to be as scientifically accurate as possible.

“Where we have a little more musical information, we have to decide, for example, which musical instrument will be activated by the stars,” he adds. “People seem to have an intuition that the stars would make some kind of bell or bell sound.”

His sonifications of Webb’s images now allow people to see and hear the universe.

Sonifications give people living with visual impairments the opportunity to experience new insights into what exists.

“The whole goal is to communicate those interesting features in the image, through sound,” says Russo.

Christine Malec, a member of the visually impaired community in Toronto and an arts and culture consultant, says Russo and Santaguida’s sonifications allow her to conceptualize the telescope images, even though she can’t see them.

“I had never imagined experiencing astronomy in that way,” he tells The New Reality.

Christine Malec is a member of the visually impaired community and helps NASA make Webb’s images more accessible.

“When I first experienced sonification, I felt it in a way that wasn’t intellectual; it was sensory and visceral. So sometimes I wonder if this is what sighted people experience when looking at the night sky,” says Malec.

He now works regularly with Russo, Santaguida, and NASA to help better translate Webb’s images for the benefit of people living with visual impairments.

Malec is excited about the future of space exploration and hopeful for the future of accessible science content.

“I wonder if I were a kid now and came across things like sonification and image descriptions and astronomical things, would a career in STEM make more sense? Would it be more attractive? And I think the answer to that is yes. So I think that reason is really good for today’s blind and low vision kids to grow up with this as normal, I think it’s incredibly valuable.”

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