A miracle occurred near dawn on December 25, a miracle that united all the world in a spirit of hope, peace, and cooperation.
That event was the successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope from French Guiana at 7:20 AM and the beginning of its long journey toward a gravitational sweet spot far beyond the moon’s orbit, about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. Its journey to that spot is still underway; in fact, by the time you finish this article the JWST will have notched another four kilometers or so on its path to whatever fate awaits it.
The ongoing miracle is both the successful launch of the telescope and the fact that the deployment since the launch has been – at least so far – as smooth as space-butter. This is all the more remarkable given that the staged unfolding and extension of the telescope’s many delicate parts can reasonably be compared to unwrapping a Christmas present blindfolded, if the present is a bonsai tree wrapped by an origami master and your living room is flying through an airless void at three times the speed of sound, and if you make one mistake you stand to lose ten billion dollars and 26 years of groundbreaking work. Let’s hope that sweater fits!
The JWST is designed to gather light that was emitted by the earliest stars and galaxies when the universe was considerably younger and smaller than its current 13.8 billion years and 45 billion light year radius. Over time that light has stretched into the infrared due to the ongoing expansion of the universe, and Webb’s instruments and honeycomb of mirrors, tuned to the infrared, will see far deeper into the past than is possible with the Hubble Space Telescope, which sees almost entirely in visible wavelengths. Before anyone asks, the extreme reach of the JWST does not mean it will see to the edge of the universe. When the most distant observable light was emitted, the part of space we now inhabit was just as young, so the “edge” we see is really not one. The entire universe may well be considerably larger, and possibly even infinite. The JWST was designed to help tease out these and other mysteries from the unimaginably distant past.
Now, all this rarefied cosmology may seem remote from ordinary life, but if Webb is, essentially, an astronomically expensive time-machine peering into the past, most of us have a more accessible time-machine at our disposal: binoculars! Grab any ordinary pair, step outside at night, and sweep the sky in any direction. You are now a time-traveler, taking in light so ancient it may have left its star when our homo sapiens ancestors were hoisting their first crude opera glasses to the skies.
Here are a few binocular-friendly sights to plan for in 2022:
- January 3, 4, and 5: the moon will appear next to Mercury, Saturn, and Jupiter, in that order by day, just after sunset.
- March 31: Saturn, Venus, and Mars are in one binocular field of view.
- April 4: the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters will pose with a waxing crescent moon in the northwest sky after sunset. In the southeastern sky just before dawn, Mars and Saturn will almost “touch.” Circle this night on your calendar!
- May 15: lunar eclipse (a second eclipse takes place November 8).
- June 24: moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn appear in a line stretching east to south.
- August 12: Perseid meteor shower.
- December 8: Mars is at its brightest.
- December 13: Geminids meteor shower.
Well, there you have it. December may have been a grey, gloomy month, fitting as an end to 2021, but we are launched in a new direction in 2022. Let’s see what’s out there.
Stargazer by Dennis Vanderspek