Jeffrey Kluger, Time Magazine
First comes the art, then comes the science. Just over a week after NASA dazzled the world with the first clutch of images from the James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers working with one of the pictures believe they have found the oldest galaxy ever imaged—one dating back 13.5 billion years, or just 300 million years after the Big Bang, report Space.com and others.
The age of a galaxy is measured by what is known as its red shift: as the universe expands, the wavelength of light is stretched into the red spectrum. The redder the image, the greater the stretching and the farther—and older—the object in the image is. Analyzing the deep-field image the Webb telescope returned, a team led by astronomer Rohan Naidu of the Harvard Center for Astrophysics detected a galaxy with a shift that fixes it at the 13.5-billion-year point.
“We’re potentially looking at the most distant starlight ever seen,” Naidu told France 24. The next step is to submit their findings for peer review that should hopefully validate their discovery.
The galaxy is not much as these things go. It measures 3,000 to 4,500 light years across and contains about a billion stars. In comparison, our Milky Way measures about 100,000 light years and contains an estimated 200 billion stars. But seeing something 13.5 billion light years away means we’re seeing it as it looked 13.5 billion years ago. Over time, the small, old galaxy would have merged with others nearby, forming a single, giant galactic mass.
It’s not just scientific dividends, though, that NASA’s getting from the James Webb telescope. In a new poll of 1,000 people taken by YouGovAmerica, NASA and Webb posted numbers that any politician would envy.
On the whole, just over 70% of Americans have a favorable view of NASA, 13% view the space agency unfavorably, and 16% say they don’t know. Men lead women 76% to 66% in giving NASA the thumbs-up, and—for once—there is no meaningful partisan divide: 79% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans approve of NASA.
As for the dizzying $10 billion price tag of Webb, Americans seem untroubled. Sixty percent say that Webb was a good or very good investment, 26% were unsure, and only 13% say it was money ill-spent. The lofty approval numbers might have been inflated somewhat by when the poll was taken—between July 14 and 18—or just when the nation was taking in the first Webb pictures. “Astonishment in the face of beauty,” one subject in the poll told YouGov, according to The Verge. “I was quite overwhelmed.”