New Webb Telescope to Unlock Secrets of the Big Bang | Almanac.com

New Webb Telescope to Unlock Secrets of the Big Bang


New Webb image of the Carina Nebula revealing emerging stellar nurseries and individual stars previously obscured

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Another Big Bang?

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We’ve all heard of the Big Bang Theory. One of the goals of the new James Webb Telescope is to reveal what happened after the Big Bang. Why do we need to understand the Big Bang? And how will the Webb telescope help us understand the secrets of the origins of the universe—and of life itself?

July’s first-ever James Webb Telescope images, released just a couple of weeks ago, showed sharper-than-ever scenes of extremely distant objects—some distorted into lines and arcs by the warping of space created by invisibly distant massive objects.

Goal of the New Webb Telescope

The goal of the Webb Telescope is to ultimately see the earliest stars and galaxies being formed once the universe became transparent 279,000 years after the Big Bang.

To be clear, the Webb is NOT studying the period before the Big Bang. We already know from satellite heat maps that the universe before the Big Bang was simply smooth with almost no differences in temperature. But what happened right afterwards? We don’t know when the very first stars lit the cosmos after the Big Bang nor how the first galaxies and other celestial objects formed.

What is the Big Bang?

There’s sometimes confusion about the Big Bang Theory, so let’s take a step back. The universe exploded into the cosmos about 13.8 billion years ago. The universe was small, dense, and hot until an explosion ballooned our universe outwards faster than the speed of light. We know from satellites that the “Big Bang” wasn’t like a firecracker exploding in the center of the universe (there is no center of the universe), but that it happened everywhere at once. We know this because we can see that heat uniformly fills the universe.

Before the “Big Bang,” the universe was a fog and light could not travel freely. After its initial expansion and after the universe cooled sufficiently, photons (bits of light) flew everywhere while continuously being stretched out—reddened and cooled further—by the expansion of space.
So, now we live in a matter-filled cosmos, where we see an amazingly uniform glow of microwave-frequency light evenly coming at us from the entire sky, after having radiated from everywhere with amazing consistency.
But those small ripples that our satellites can detect—in places just 1/50,000 of a degree hotter or cooler than everything else—were the seeds where clumps of atoms form today’s stars, galaxies, and planets.

Webb image of galaxy group “Stephan’s Quintet” shows in rare detail how galaxies interact with each other and captures detail of an active black hole at the heart of the topmost galaxy.

So the next milestone would be actually seeing those objects forming, and the James Webb can do the job.

But There’s a Problem.

What if the universe isn’t quite what we assumed? We attached the idea of  “birth” to the expansion because everything we know about has a “birth” date—from Hostess Cupcakes to postage stamps. We know of nothing that’s “birthless,” unless you actually believe that Werner Heisenberg and his Quantum Theory buddies may have been right and there are things like awareness that are eternal.

But think about it: The Big Bang isn’t actually about the beginning of EVERYTHING. It’s about the transition from a small, dense, hot universe into the humongous expansion of the universe as we know it today. The Big Bang is an important event, but it doesn’t tell us how energy, time, and space were caused.

→ How far is the most distant object in the universe? Read on.
If the universe is eternal with no beginning (nor end), the Big Bang could still have happened. Given the flat overall topology of space discovered by Berkeley researchers in 2012, the Big Bang could merely be a local event in the ‘hood, which means that somewhere deep within the non-observable, most-distant cosmos lurk other Big Bangs.

Perhaps that may be where that long-sought “other Earth” might be located. Way out—so far out we’ll never possibly see it.

What the Webb Will Teach Us

For now, the Webb telescope can help us learn when and how the first stars after the Big Bang formed. These are the chemical elements of life! As we learn more about what happened at the beginning, we’ll learn more about how Earth came to support life and where our very atoms came from. Stay tuned for more wonders of the universe.

Now read my post on, “Where in Space Are We Headed?

About The Author

Bob Berman

Bob Berman, astronomer editor for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, covers everything under the Sun (and Moon)! Bob is the world’s most widely read astronomer and has written ten popular books. Read More from Bob Berman

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