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Montana astronomers weigh in on James Webb Space Telescope images

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Posted at 5:16 PM, Jul 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-13 19:16:24-04

BILLINGS — The scope and size of our universe are difficult to even wrap your mind around, but new photos from the James Webb Space Telescope are giving us a view of the cosmos never seen before.

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“If you were to hold a grain of sand and hold that grain of sand at arm’s length, that would be the area of the sky that (the telescope) observed,” said Ryan Hannahoe, executive director of the Montana Learning Center, on Tuesday.

He said in that area of the sky except for a few foreground stars, every other object in this image is a galaxy.

“There are literally thousands of galaxies in that one image alone in that part of space,” said Hannahoe.

Hannahoe worked on the James Webb Space Telescope mission while interning with NASA 10 years ago. He understands more than most just how revolutionary the released images are.

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“Just like the Hubble Space Telescope, James Webb will revolutionize our understanding of the universe,” he said.

Hannahoe said the James Webb telescope is as big as a tennis court standing three stories tall. By comparison, the Hubble telescope is the size of a school bus.

“I would go to wager that James Webb or the Webb Space Telescope is going to by far surpass Hubble,” said Hannahoe.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Steven Wiles, an assistant professor at the Department of Biology and Physical Science at MSU Billings.

“It’s designed to get some of the best images of most distant things we can see in the universe,” said Wiles.

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The telescope is giving scientists a look at everything from how galaxies interact to the chemical composition of exoplanets.

“Checking those atmospheres and seeing what they’re actually made out of it, maybe hopefully spotting what that has something like oxygen in the atmosphere,” said Wiles.

Hannahoe said the James Webb telescope imaged an exoplanet as it orbited in front of a star and compared the measurements between the exoplanet and the star.

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“The planet that they were studying, they discovered, it’s got a water-based atmosphere and that atmosphere has clouds and it’s an Earth-like planet,” said Hannahoe.

That’s giving astronomers hope that one day, they’ll discover other life in the universe.

“It’s going to revolutionize how we think about life in the universe too. Across the board, this is huge,” Hannahoe said.