The James Webb telescope is sending back unprecedented images, including of a planet beyond our solar system. It's hoped the $10bn project will shed light on the origins of the universe, and perhaps even the search for alien life. Chris Goswami speaks to Christian astronomers to find out how they're interpreting the images, and why they see no contradiction between science and their faith
Have you looked up at the sky on a dark and clear night?
Few of us can fail to be struck by the glittering beauty of the night sky. Simple yet splendid, it is an experience that can startle us if we choose to glance upward. We have the sense that we can reach out and touch infinity. We feel really small, yet we feel close to something that is really big.
In the past few weeks, a new telescope operating a million miles from earth (four times further than the moon) has begun to send back astonishing photographs. These are the most distant objects in space ever seen. They are majestic and stunningly beautiful, they made headlines around the world, and there will be more headlines in the months to come. But these photographs also bring us face to face with profound questions. What is our place in this cosmos? What if we are not alone? And, could scientists discover how our universe began?
It’s called the James Webb Space Telescope.
It’s not often that the President of the US makes a public statement on a science project, but it happened in July.
Joe Biden himself, unveiling the first photograph from James-Webb, commented that we now have “a new window into the history of our universe”.
That first photograph, ‘Deep Field’ (see below) depicts thousands upon thousands of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, and an incalculable number of planets.
As Biden said, the numbers are “mind-blowing”. But to really grasp the immensity of this image, think about this: if you take a single grain of sand and hold it out at arm’s length, that’s the area of sky covered by this photograph.
The fact that a mere pinprick in the night sky could reveal such a dazzling array of stars is almost beyond comprehension. What new worlds could lie within these galaxies? What strange civilisations could they harbour?
Deb Haarsma is President of Biologos, which seeks to bring together Christ-centred faith with rigorous science. She was formerly Professor of Astronomy at Calvin University. She remarks, “when you look up at the night sky, the space between stars looks black, but it’s not. It’s filled with wonders. God has filled the universe with an extravagance of beauty, even where there is no one else to see it. As elegant as an abstract painting, it’s truly a display of God’s artistic creativity! No wonder David as a young shepherd boy was moved to sing 'The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth.’ (Psalm 19:1-3)"
In another image “Carina Nebula”, James-Webb shows us what we call a nebula, a super-massive cloud of dust and gas where stars are born:
This stellar nursery reminds us that even stars have a lifespan. They are born, they have a lifetime, but eventually, after billions of years, they collapse and die.
This telescope is a time machine
When we look at the images from James-Webb we are peering back into time, millions, even billions of years. How is that?
It’s because light from a star takes time to travel the huge distances through space to our eyes. For example, the sun is 93 million miles away and its light, travelling at 186,000 miles per second, takes 8 minutes to travel that distance. So, when we see the sun, we see it as it was 8 minutes ago. When we look at other stars (much more distant than the sun), we see them as they were, not minutes ago, but years ago, their light takes so long to reach us.
In fact, the distances to deep space objects are so immense that astronomers don’t bother to use miles as they would quickly be talking in the trillions. Instead, they use the “light year”. This is the distance that light travels through space in one year. So, if we are looking at a star that is one light year away, we are seeing it as it was one year ago. (One light year is about 6 trillion miles).
In the Deep Field photograph some of the galaxies are over 4 billion light years away. They are so distant that we are seeing them as they were 4 billion years ago. And one galaxy is actually over 13 billion light years away. Going back in time 13 billion years should rightly make us pause to catch our breath, and it’s why Joe Biden did a double take. He commented that we are seeing: “the oldest-documented light in the history of the universe from over 13 billion – let me say that again – 13 billion years ago.”.
But here’s the question. Astronomers agree that our universe is 13.8 billion years old. So, as James-Webb takes us to stars that are further and further away, further and further back in time, what exactly will we see as we approach the birth of our universe, as we approach the edge of time?
God and the big bang
This period of time, 13.8 billion years ago, is what astronomers call the “Cosmic Dawn”, the time when the first light of the first stars appeared.
It’s the time our known universe was formed in an event commonly called “the Big Bang”. There are multiple lines of evidence scientists use to point back to a creation event at this point. Chris Done, Professor of Astrophysics at Durham University, researches black holes and runs Alpha courses (but not at the same time!) She says: “There is solid and compelling evidence that the entire universe had an origin, the Big Bang, a moment of creation over 13 billion years ago. We see this origin imprinted on the structure of our universe. The galaxies are expanding away from each other, like steam out of a kettle. So, it follows that, in the past, they must have been closer together. If you go back far enough, they would all be on top of each other - hence the idea of an explosive beginning where all matter emerges from a single point. The Big Bang”.
Science and the book of Genesis are not at odds
But where does that leave us as Christians? Professor Done sees no contradiction, quite the opposite. She says, “our universe has not always been there but had a moment of creation. That is consistent with biblical teaching of a creation event. It does cause problems, however, for some atheists, because, if creation had a beginning, that has profound implications”.
Professor Haarsma agrees: “Science and the book of Genesis are not at odds”, she says, “they are two complimentary pictures, and you need them together to understand what God was doing with creation. Science answers the questions of how and when, but only scripture can show us who and why. A scientific explanation is great, but it doesn’t replace God”.
Will James-Webb see objects as far back in time as the Big Bang? Sadly, no. Following the Big Bang, scientists believe the universe was too hot for even the most rudimentary matter to form and consisted of pure energy in the form of radiation. Then, after a few hundred million years, things cooled down sufficiently for gravity to cause the first stars to begin to take shape. It is these very first stars, the most ancient in our universe, that James-Webb will show us. Studying these “fossilised galaxies” will help us understand what was taking place when our universe was in its infancy.
Is anybody out there?
Another of the telescope’s images shows the make-up of the atmosphere of an “exoplanet”. Exoplanets are planets orbiting other stars and over 5,000 have been discovered. James-Webb revealed the presence of water vapour on one exoplanet. Of course, that raises the often-asked question, could there be life beyond our solar system?
Understandably, both astronomers I spoke with are neutral on the alien question. Professor Done points out that, with a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone, many of which have planets, it wouldn’t be surprising to find some kind of life. And if not, well there’s another two hundred billion galaxies out there to go look at! In fact, there are likely to be billions of earth-like planets across our universe.
A friend at church told me she would feel disappointed if there was life out there since it would make her feel less special. Certainly, some Christians feel that the discovery of intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe somehow diminishes our own place with God. “But”, says Professor Done when I put this to her, “isn’t that the same as in the New Testament? Jesus and the disciples were all Jews and the early church was 100% Jewish. When they discovered that non-Jews can also become followers of Jesus, they definitely felt less special!”
It’s a fair point: we may instinctively feel that we should be at the centre of the universe, but doesn’t that place belong to God alone?
Professor Haarsma points out the question of human significance in the face of the cosmos has always been with us. David reflects on it in Psalm 8: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them? Yet you have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour."
Haarsma continues: “As David realised, we are not insignificant. In fact, God gave us a special role in creation, to study it and care for it, and asks us to be partners with him in governing it. Even more than that, God became one of us and sacrificed himself to save us. The Bible never claims that life is restricted to our planet, but, whether there are aliens or not, we are significant in God’s eyes”.
Professor Done adds, with a smile, “if there are aliens on Alpha Centauri, I’d love to run an Alpha Course for them!”
Science vs faith?
Many churches stay away from science. Whether this is from ignorance or fear, it’s a great shame because the world increasingly looks to science for answers. To ignore science is to disconnect ourselves from many in our congregations who end up thinking that their church is opposed to science.
Professor Haarsma provides a simple illustration she has used in church to show that immense distance means immense love. She says, “James-Webb provides a neat opportunity for churches. Just display some of these astonishing images and put up the words of Psalm 103: "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us."
The incomprehensible nature of space can bring us closer to God’s deep love
She’s right. 13.8 billion light years can take us to a point so far away we can never imagine it. And yet it doesn’t come close to the extent of God’s love for each of us. It doesn’t even begin to illustrate how far God removes our sins away from us. The incomprehensible nature of space can bring us closer not only to God’s glory, but to God’s deep love.
An extraordinary endeavour
The project epitomises international cooperation and human ingenuity at its finest. James-Webb is a huge team-effort involving 300 organisations from 14 countries and managed collaboratively between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
This incredibly complex telescope was designed like a piece of origami, folded up tight to fit inside a rocket, and programmed to unfold itself and then assemble itself a million miles from earth. In total, 295 complex operations had to be performed by James-Webb with no human to step in if it didn’t work. Failure of any one would have consigned the mission to a costly mistake.
But they didn’t fail. Each one worked perfectly. That is testament to the 1,200 engineers and scientists who have worked for over 25 years to make James-Webb possible. It is their dedication, their life work, and now their joy to bring us these incredible photographs over the coming years.
Of course, the project does have a cost, around US$10 billion in total. That’s a lot yes, but, on the other hand, it’s less than the price of a single NATO aircraft carrier. Put like that, it’s a price worth paying to usher in a new era of discovery.