An artist's impression released by ESA/Hubble of the K2-18b super-Earth. Image: AFP

As an engineering student, I was fascinated with all things air and space. I would watch the Hubble Space Telescope on the US Public Broadcasting Service’s Nova program. Hubble really did open up the universe to us in a way that nothing else did. It was a combination of Hubble and all other things that inspired me to pursue space exploration as my own personal dream, and part of that dream was to know more about the universe.

A number of years later, I graduated from California State Polytechnic University and have since worked for more than three decades in aeronautics science. I also found myself at the US National Air and Space Museum, working as a docent since 1997. Our docent corps is made up of knowledgeable volunteers, including former NASA employees, pilots, engineers, and historians.

In 1990, when the Hubble began operations, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration began showing us what our universe looks like, and how it has changed and grown over billions of years. It also showed us how galaxies were different billions of years ago, and uncovered the faint, distant galaxies that shaped our universe today. But there are a number of questions it can’t answer: What were the first stars and galaxies like? How do stars come to form deep within a dusty nebula? How far away do we need to look to see the pristine, pre-stellar universe? And how did the early stars and galaxies assemble to give rise to what we have today?

In case you didn’t know, most of the matter in our universe is invisible dark matter, but its gravity binds everything together, including galaxies. So by studying galaxies – and especially their formation – we can get some hints as to how dark matter works. At least, that’s the hope. It turns out that astronomy is a little bit more complicated than that, and one of the major things we have to deal with when studying these distant galaxies is dust. That’s right: a lot of good old-fashioned dust.

We can watch stars being born, living out their lives, and then dying in spectacular explosions that produce the elements from which we are made as well as neutron stars and black holes. We can watch how galaxies form and grow by gobbling up their neighbors. Hubble provides one-stop viewing for a comprehensive tour of all of space and time, or at least of the 5% of the universe we actually understand. The other 95% is made of stuff astronomers can’t see, detect or even comprehend. These mysterious substances are called dark energy and dark matter.

One thing is for certain. Earth is our best and only example of a planet that harbors life, so scientists use Earth, particularly its deep geological record, to build a search image of what they should look for when they hunt for habitable exoplanets. And I believe all areas of creation are subject to the same laws. So the idea that there would be life on planets elsewhere would imply the same life-supporting conditions resulting in the same types of life spawning. I am saying that there could be humans in other galaxies. And the only distinction from us would be dependent upon their own resources and environmental and circumstantial influences. But life still spawns the same under the same conditions regardless of where you happen to be in the universe.

So by comparing the actual images and statistics of galaxies revealed, it is hoped that NASA can find the best match and pick out which dark-matter model is the most accurate. From there we can learn even more about the universe, like hunting for exotic models of gravity or even getting a clue as to the mysterious nature of dark energy. This sounds straightforward but it isn’t. Observations in the universe are very messy and complicated and generally very hard, because there’s a lot more to our universe than just stars and galaxies and dark matter.

Many scientists believe there’s another planet like Earth somewhere in the universe, and the real search to find it is about to begin. The James Webb Space Telescope will be more powerful than Hubble and will be able to see further into space to discover distant planets in far-off galaxies. It will even give us the tools to search for indications of an atmosphere that could sustain life.

Webb will primarily look at the universe in the infrared, while Hubble studies it primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths. Hubble taught us what our universe looks like; Webb will teach us how our universe came to be this way. Webb also has a much bigger mirror than Hubble. This larger light-collecting area means that Webb can peer farther back into time than Hubble is capable of doing.

It has been nearly a century since astronomers studying distant galaxies first noticed something odd: The galaxies seemed to hold more matter than could be accounted for by the visible material – stars and gas clouds. This missing mass, dubbed dark matter, is now believed to make up more than a quarter of the total mass and energy in the visible universe. Data from the Hubble revealed that distant galaxies aren’t just moving away from our home galaxy, they’re speeding away from us at an accelerating rate.

To go to the earliest galaxies, we needed a bigger mirror, and that bigger mirror had to look at a bigger frequency of light. Webb won’t be able to say decisively that there’s definitely life on a planet or not, but it will begin to map out that space. Webb will peer into the universe in the infrared, which is important because newly forming stars and planets are hidden behind dust that absorbs visible light – but infrared light can penetrate that dust.

And it may help us find the next Earth. NASA is planning to investigate the nature of dark energy in the universe, and understand the nature of these very old objects. And characterizing planets around other suns puts us on the path to finding out if there’s another Earth out there. The Webb will also assist in the hunt for exoplanets, something that Hubble does but was not designed for.

Webb will see things that nobody on Earth, and none of our telescopes, has ever seen before: the first light of the universe, the birth of stars, and gravity’s assembly of galaxies. Webb is definitely going to help us keep that dream alive. Even as it helps us to understand the very beginnings of time, it’s also going to light the way to our wildest dreams for the future. Webb is still on track to begin its mission in March 2021, when it’s scheduled to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana.

Once the $10 billion Webb is blasted into orbit in 2021 and hovering 1.6 million kilometers from Earth, it will see things that nobody from Earth, and none of our telescopes, has ever seen before: the first light of the universe, the birth of stars, and gravity’s assembly of galaxies. Its infrared telescope will be able to witness star formation even through dense clouds of gas, and will detect objects so far away, their original ultraviolet glow has shifted down to infrared by the time it gets to us, billions of years and sextillions of kilometers later.

Kent Wang

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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