Explore
Also Available in:

What you need to know about the James Webb Space Telescope

Understand how a biblical perspective already informs on prospective discoveries

by and Mark Harwood

Published: 26 December 2021 (GMT+10)
James-Webb-space-telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope

Global response to the COVID-19 pandemic meant 2020 was a year of delayed events: From the Olympics to local weddings, to the 145th Westminster Kennel Club Dog show. For astronomers and cosmologists, the delay to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST or Webb for short) from 30 March 2020 was painful. But scientists have become accustomed to waiting for the next ‘eye in the sky.’

The JWST was conceived in 1996, and originally had a launch date in 2007. But multiple delays and a broadening in project scope led to a budget increase from 0.5 billion to 9.6 billion USD, and a final launch date of 25th December 2021.

But for the ‘premier observatory of the next decade,’1 it was surely worth the wait. Like all large modern telescopes, the JWST promises to satisfy man’s desire for discovering his origins! NASA and ESA websites read:

“The James Webb Space Telescope will be a giant leap forward in our quest to understand the Universe and our origins”2

“JWST’s primary aim is to shed light on our cosmic origins”3

We know that the Bible contains an accurate eyewitness testimony of the origins of the universe, and man’s interpretations from telescopic data is just speculation compared with the biblical written record. Is this 10 billion dollars then wasted?

en.wikipedia.orgSTS-61
Fig 1: Hubble’s first service mission trip, December 1993

Whilst a biblical worldview would greatly assist scientists in their exploration (the biblical worldview is actually the basis of modern science4), the money and time will not be wasted. New discoveries will enable us to better understand and appreciate the universe God has made, helping us fulfil the God-given desire for exploration and insight, as well as assisting us in glorifying God!

The Heavens declare the Glory of God (Psalm 19:1).

We also expect the discoveries to be entirely consistent with God’s account of origins found in Genesis.

Reasons for the extensive delays include the many checks Webb has needed to pass prior to launch. Unlike the Hubble space telescope, Webb will not be serviceable.

Much of our knowledge of the universe is thanks to the Hubble service mission in 1993. Shortly after the 24 April 1990 launch, the disappointing first images were blamed on a spherical aberration (an imperfection) in Hubble’s primary mirror. Fortunately, Hubble’s low earth orbit of 547 km allowed the space shuttle Endeavour to reach it, and NASA astronauts to make the appropriate modifications to recover its intended performance. This greatly improved Hubble’s images which have been further improved by upgrades and replacements made during 4 subsequent service missions.

SciTechDailygalaxy-M100
Fig 2: Optical evolution of Hubble’s primary camera system. These images show spiral galaxy M100 as seen with Wide Field Planetary Camera 1 (WFPC1) in 1993 before corrective optics (left), with WFPC2 in 1994 after correction (centre), and with WFC3 in 2018 (right).

Webb is not designed to be serviced either by humans or robots due to the enormous distance it will be from Earth. Unlike the Hubble telescope, JWST will orbit the sun at a location known as Lagrange Point 2 (it will also orbit Lagrange point 2 itself in a halo orbit5), a gravitationally stable spot in space 1.5 million km from our planet (see figure 3).

NASAOrbit
Fig 3: Location of Webb from Earth compared with Hubble and the moon.

Webb’s mission objectives drive the need for Webb to be stationed far from Earth. To see the most distant stars and galaxies, it is necessary for Webb to operate in the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum (see fig 4), because more distant objects tend to emit light that has been redshifted, and the infrared wavelengths better penetrate interstellar gas and dust.

NASAem-spectrum-satellite
Fig 4: JWST instruments will see wavelengths from 0.6 to 28 micrometres (1 micrometre is 1 x 10-6 meters). The infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum spans from 0.75 micrometres to a few hundred micrometres. This means that Webb’s instruments will work primarily in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, with some capability in the visible range (the red and up to the yellow part of the visible spectrum). The instruments on Hubble can observe a small portion of the infrared spectrum from 0.8 to 2.5 micrometres, but its primary capabilities are in the ultra-violet and visible parts of the spectrum from 0.1 to 0.8 micrometres.

The problem is, even very low temperature objects give off infrared radiation, so any satellite we put into orbit around the earth will receive infrared radiation, not only from the earth but also from the moon. Hence the need for Webb to be so far away from the earth.

Even 1.5 million km away would not be sufficient for Webb’s sensitive instruments to operate without a heat shield. The required temperature is no more than -225⁰C! Hence the need for Webb’s sophisticated sun shield, seen from the hot side in fig 5 (right). This sunshield will protect the scientific instruments from the heat of the sun, moon and earth.

NASAwebb-telescope
Fig 5: The two sides of the Webb telescope (left). The ‘hot’ side of JWST with the sunshield protecting the main optics from sunlight (right).

Webb’s scientific objectives are vast. Webb’s senior project scientist John Mather, said:

“Webb will have an ambitious science agenda stretching from studying small worlds in our solar system to surveying the outer reaches of the universe. “We’re going to look at everything there is in the universe that we can see.”6

NASA have split the scientific objectives into four categories7:

  1. Early Universe
  2. Galaxies Over Time
  3. Star Lifecycle
  4. Other Worlds

We will explore the questions scientists are hoping Webb will answer, under these categories, giving a biblical perspective on each question:

1. Early Universe:

Webb will be a powerful time machine with infrared vision that will peer back over 13.5 billion years to see the first stars and galaxies forming out of the darkness of the early universe.8

We are told that Webb will see stars and galaxies as they appeared 13.5 billion years ago, which is what is meant by “early”. Note that this is a claim based on belief in the big bang model. What Webb will actually observe will be light from galaxies and stars that are very far away. How long that light takes to get to the JWST is another question. In fact, even the assumed vast distances to the very far away galaxies9 are model and parameter dependent. What can be said without any layers of interpretation is that Webb is expected to observe objects with redshifts (see box entitled Redshift) up to Z=1510 with 100 times the sensitivity of the Hubble telescope. The most distant galaxy the Hubble telescope has seen is, GN-Z1111 at Z=11.09.

Why are the furthest away stars and galaxies of interest?

Cosmologists are hoping that Webb will find Population III galaxies12 which would consist of stars that are made up of ONLY Hydrogen and Helium (and trace amounts of lithium)13and NO heavier elements.

These are the hypothetical first-generation stars in the big bang model, and therefore should be the most distant stars.

So far only Population II and Population I stars have been directly observed.14 Even distant quasar spectra reveal heavier elements (i.e. the gas surrounding quasars contain elements heavier than Hydrogen and Helium), and yet the big bang theory relies on the existence of Population III stars:

It is proposed that reionization15 was triggered by these Population III stars, and they were the source of the heavier elements.16 Therefore, no Population III stars; no carbon, no oxygen, no silicon, no earth, no me and no you!

Redshift

Redshift describes the phenomena of spectral signatures from stars and galaxies being shifted to longer and therefore redder wavelengths. The redshift parameter Z is used to describe the change in wavelength:

Wavelength

Where:
λobs = Observed wavelength of spectral feature
λrest = Wavelength of spectral feature if star was at rest to observer (or, as measured in the lab)

All stars and galaxies sufficiently far away from Earth show redshift, and their respective redshifts increase with their distance from Earth (Hubble’s law). Therefore, redshift, Z, is used as a proxy for distance from the earth.

Supermassive black hole formation?

Population III stars17 are also of interest to those investigating the formation of Supermassive Black Holes (SMBH). Whilst standard stellar mass black holes fit within known physics (we have good observational evidence for these forming from neutron stars18), Supermassive Black Holes are too big to have formed naturally within the big bang time frame.19

The problem of the existence of SMBHs was made worse in December 2017 when the most distant SMBH was found at Z =7.54. This redshift converts to just 690 million years in big bang age, 5 % of the big bang’s claimed 13.8-billion-year-old universe. The problem for naturalistic history, is how did a black hole 800 million times more massive than the sun accrete in such a short time!

Even though the putative Population III stars17 are said to have been 500 times the mass of the sun20 (bigger than any star we have ever observed), their resultant black holes (100 to 200 solar masses) are still too small to be the progenitor of a SMBH.

There are a number of alternate theories on how SMBHs could form so far away from Earth. A currently popular theory postulates that very large gas clouds directly collapse into a 1000–10,000 solar mass black hole (this is the progenitor mass needed for accretion and merges to grow the black hole into a SMBH within the big bang’s history). However, a special set of circumstances21 in the top-down theory (see ‘galaxy formation’ below) is needed to allow this to happen. . It is hoped that observations from the JWST will help clarify which theory, if any, is correct.

2. Galaxies Over Time

Webb’s unprecedented infrared sensitivity will help astronomers to compare the faintest, earliest galaxies to today’s grand spirals and ellipticals, helping us to understand how galaxies assemble over billions of years.”22

Again, note the assumption that the faintest, furthest away galaxies are the earliest. Whilst distance might be a proxy for a relative time scale, the big bang timescale is dependent upon its assumptions.23 Galaxy evolution has long been a problem for the big bang.24

The astronomer, Edwin Hubble, was the first to classify galaxies based on their morphology, and he came up with the following categories:

  1. Ellipticals (E)
  2. Lenticular (SO)
  3. Spirals (S)
  4. Barred Spirals (SB)
  5. Irregulars (Irr).

Although Hubble didn’t necessarily intend to suggest that galaxies evolve from simple to complex (from 1 to 4), it was thought that galaxies start off looking like ellipticals and then mature on towards spirals.

University of Iowa Department for Physics and Astronomyhubble-tuning-fork
Fig 6: The Hubble tuning fork: For ellipticals, the number 0–9 indicates the eccentricity (E0 is spherical, E9 has high eccentricity). For spiral and barred spirals, the letter ‘a’ indicates a bar, tightly wound arms, and a large central bulge while ‘c’ has no bar, very loosely wound, and a small central bulge. The letter ‘b’ is in between: a less prominent bar than ‘a’, medium central bulge, and arms wound less than ‘a’, but more than ‘c’.

Now it is thought that if galaxies do evolve, they evolve from right to left (in fig 6) rather than left to right, because:

  1. The spiral galaxies to the right are bluer and therefore supposedly younger (blue stars burn brighter and therefore burn through their fuel quicker).
  2. Images of what look like merging galaxies suggest that ellipticals evolved through the merging of disk galaxies.
NASAHoags-object
Fig 7: Hoag’s object: A ring galaxy names after it’s discoverer Arthur Hoag, who identified it in 1950.

However, there are an increasing number of strange looking galaxies that astronomers are struggling to fit into the evolutionary theory, for example ring galaxies (see fig 7)

Mature looking galaxies at large distances

The big bang model does not allow for galaxies to look ‘mature’ (i.e. galaxies with high metallicity and well-formed structure, e.g. Disks/Spirals) at large distances (i.e. supposedly soon after the big bang), yet we are starting to find some, for example the Wolfe disk,25 a galaxy at Z=4.26. Theoreticians are racing to explain galaxies such as these as it is suspected that they are more common than previously thought. And because the JWST will observe some of the furthest away galaxies, we can expect more discoveries like the Wolfe disk.

Galaxy formation

The two opposite competing theories of galaxy formation currently are the bottom-up theory and the top-down theory. Top-down theory postulates that the largest structures in the universe formed first and then divided into clusters, groups, and galaxies. Bottom-up theories speculate that the primordial fluctuations first formed protogalaxies, which by gravitational attraction grew into galaxies, groups, clusters etc.

Whilst astronomers are expecting Webb and other new observations to help develop these theories, the one answer that is rarely considered is that God made them that way!

3. Star Lifecycle

“Webb will be able to see right through and into massive clouds of dust that are opaque to visible-light observatories like Hubble, where stars and planetary systems are being born.”26

Spectroscopy can be used to calculate the precise amounts of elements within stars. By using particle and quantum physics theories, well tested here on Earth, we can calculate how long a star will burn which fuel for, and how that star will change over time.

Whilst these theories are well established, the currently accepted theory for star formation (Jeans collapse of molecular clouds27) has a number of unproven assumptions.

From NASA’s JWST website28 we see listed two of the open questions the JWST is to answer:

  1. How do clouds of gas and dust collapse down to the dense cores that form stars?
  2. What is the early evolution of protostars?

Another JWST website page says:

“Researchers still do not know the details of how clouds of gas and dust collapse to form stars, or why most stars form in groups, or exactly how planetary systems form.”26

A standard university astrophysics textbook states:

“One area where the picture is far from complete is in the earliest stage of evolution, the formation of pre-nuclear-burning objects known as protostars from interstellar molecular clouds.”29

One of the problems is that the processes involved cannot be repeated in a laboratory. Another being that no one has ever observed a star forming. And of course, it is impossible to observe events that are said to occur on a timescale of millions of years.

What we do have is a collection of images of gas clouds with different densities and temperatures. We are told that they are images of gas clouds in the stellar formation process, but they could simply be a variety of created cosmic objects.

Whilst biblical history tells us it is not necessary for stars to form naturalistically, the big bang timeline demands it. 13.8 billion years is beyond the lifetime of most stars. Therefore, to uphold the big bang paradigm, many of the stars we see today must have been created within this timeline, not just near the beginning. In fact, to have the 1022 stars existing today, they must be created on a daily basis over the alleged 13.8 billion years.

Because we are told that stars form in giant molecular clouds, it is of interest to astronomers to use infrared telescopes, as infrared more easily penetrates dust and gas. JWST’s significant infrared capabilities and large mirror will enable it to obtain superior pictures beyond the dust and gas clouds. (See fig 8).

NASAPillars-of-Creation
Fig 8 : The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula captured in visible light by Hubble (left). The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula captured in infrared light by Hubble (right).
Note that Hubble’s infrared images visibly penetrate gas and dust clouds, yet its infrared capability is limited when compared to the JWST .

Nucleosynthesis

Prominent atheist, Carl Sagan famously said, ‘we’re made of star stuff.’ He was referring to the theory that most of the atomic nuclei in our bodies were forged by the nuclear furnaces and explosive deaths of stars in the ancient universe. The Nucleosynthesis theory (the secular story for how all the elements came about), is said to explain the production and origin of all the elements in the universe. Big bang nucleosynthesis is the part of the story presented, not only as the explanation of the abundance of the light elements (hydrogen, deuterium, and helium), but as evidence of the big bang. We have critiqued that claim here.

The abundance of the heavier elements (heavier than iron) is much more contested in the evolutionary community, as the naturalistic production of some elements has not yet been observed, let alone the ability of that natural process to produce the abundances of the different elements found in the universe.

Up until the first neutron star merger (GW170817) in 2017, it was thought that some of the heaviest elements were produced in Supernovae. But when GW170817 gave light decay curves consistent with the production of heavy radioactive elements30 the heavy element nucleosynthesis theory swapped the dominant progenitor from Supernovae to Neutron star mergers. However, the only (heavy) elemental spectral signature found was that of strontium.31 Part of the problem is that heavy elements have spectral signatures in the infrared part of the spectrum. With the James Webb space telescope viewing the near and mid-infrared spectrum unimpeded by the earth’s atmosphere it is well placed to see such spectral features. If LIGO or VIRGO or any other yet-to-be-built gravitational wave interferometer detects a neutron star merger, then Web will almost certainly be repositioned to observe the merger in the hope of identifying the spectral signatures of the heavier elements.

Planet formation

JWST’s infrared capability and position above the earth’s atmosphere make it a unique tool32 for looking at rotating circumstellar disks of dense gas and dust surrounding stars, and it is within these that we are told planets form. They hence have the name, protoplanetary disks.

We are told that planet formation is a simple extension of star formation:

”According to our current knowledge, planets are formed around a new star by condensing in a disc of molecular gas and dust, embedded within a larger molecular cloud. Condensation increases until they become giant planets, which are heated, then cleanse their orbits in the disc and possibly bend it. Remaining gas in the disc finally disappears, leaving planets, a disc of dust and debris.”33

But there are a number of problems with planet formation theory, most notable the ‘meter sized barrier.’ See, do dust rings grow into planets.

Whilst naturalistic planet formation has always been a problem, further difficulties have arisen in the last 20 years, since the discovery of now over 4,000 known exoplanets: Before the discovery of the first exoplanet, 51 Pegasi b in 1995, the only known planets on which to base a planet formation theory on were the planets in our solar system.

The discovery of exoplanetary systems inconsistent with long-held planetary formation theories caused the invention of many modifications and even completely new theories. The JWST website admits:

“The continual discovery of new and unusual planetary systems has made scientists re-think their ideas and theories about how planets are formed.”34

One of the simplest suggested fixes is to leave the old formation theory intact (and thereby the underlying nebular hypothesis also intact), but have the planets migrate to their present positions over time. Hence, one of the key questions for JWST to answer as outlined by NASA is:

“Do planets in a planetary system form in place, or travel inwards after forming in the outer reaches of the system?”35
telescopes
Fig 9: There is some overlap in EM range with Hubble and Spitzer, but JWST will also have a much larger mirror than both, and therefore produce higher resolution images. The greatest number of spectral features of molecules in exoplanet atmospheres are in the infrared, hence the hope that Webb will be able to better categorize exoplanet atmospheres.
Credit: cen.acs.org

4. Other Worlds

”Webb will tell us more about the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, and perhaps even find the building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe. In addition to other planetary systems, Webb will also study objects within our own Solar System.”35

We have previously commented on Webb’s ability to detect exoplanet atmospheres.

As well as delivering information about planetary atmospheres through investigating their chemical composition (fig 9), Webb will also capture direct images of exoplanets, with the use of its onboard coronagraph. As of December 2021, only 10436 exoplanets have been directly imaged (roughly 0.2% of all reported exoplanets).

It is easy to see that many of the questions to be answered under the category ‘other worlds’ are directly related to the public’s increased interest in extra-terrestrial life.37 They include for example:

  • Can we find planets orbiting in the habitable zones of stars where it is possible for water, or perhaps life, to exist?38
  • How did life develop on Earth?25
  • Was there ever life on Mars?25
  • From our own solar system to distant star systems—what can we understand about planet formation, evolution, and the suitability of planets as habitats?25
  • What are the sources of water and organics for planets in habitable zones?39
  • What is the origin of water and organic materials in a planetary system?26

The JWST is uniquely designed to answer these questions because of its capability and sensitivity in the infrared range (see fig 9).

Notice that the origin of water is still a major problem for evolutionists! And once the water has arrived on Earth or an exoplanet in the habitable zone, there is then the problem that water poses to the origin of life.

Conclusion

With our knowledge of the Bible and understanding that God created the universe (Hebrews 11:3), we can confidently predict that the JWST observations will further contradict and complicate evolutionary theories on the origin of the universe, the origin of stars, the origin of planets, the origin of water on Earth, and the origin of life. With regards to the latter, we expect JWST will dismiss the possibility of life on Mars or any exoplanet.

We hope and pray that this telescope will open many eyes to the Glory of God and the amazing and unique habitability of the earth:

For this is what the LORD says— he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty but formed it to be inhabited—he says: “I am the LORD, and there is no other.—Isaiah 45:18

Maybe humanity’s next eye in the sky, the JWST, will cause many to recognise truth that Jesus Christ is Creator and Lord and there is no other!

References and notes

  1. https://webb.nasa.gov/content/about/index.html. Return to text.
  2. https://webb.nasa.gov/content/science/index.html. Return to text.
  3. https://sci.esa.int/web/jwst/-/45759-fact-sheet. Return to text.
  4. https://creation.com/science-biblical-presuppositions. Return to text.
  5. This 6 month orbit (around L2), keeps the telescope out of the shadows of both the earth and moon. Return to text.
  6. https://www.space.com/nasa-james-webb-space-telescope-launch-one-month. Return to text.
  7. https://webb.nasa.gov/content/science/index.html. Return to text.
  8. https://webb.nasa.gov/content/science/firstLight.html. Return to text.
  9. Those that cannot have their redshift distance verified by other methods. Return to text.
  10. Sailer, M.W., A Simplified James Webb Space Telescope Effective Radius Deep Field Simulation Using a Geometric-Focused Ensemble Approach, https://arxiv.org/abs/2109.14178, 29 Sept 2021. Return to text.
  11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GN-z11. Return to text.
  12. Rydberg, C. et al., Detection of isolated Population III stars with the James Web Space Telescope, Monthly notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Volume 429, Issue 4:3658-3664, 11 March 2013. Return to text.
  13. All the elements that are said to be produced in big bang nucleosynthesis. Return to text.
  14. https://creation.com/have-population-iii-stars-been-discovered. Return to text.
  15. A period of time in the big bang history when the majority of the universe went from neutral Hydrogen to ionized Hydrogen (The same process is said to occur with Helium, sometimes referred to as Helium re-ionisation). Return to text.
  16. It is suggested that the original Population III stars produced heavier elements through fusing lighter elements into heavier elements in their cores. When the Population III star explodes these heavier elements are distributed, and the later stars (Pop II and Pop I) accrete from this mixture of hydrogen, helium, and heavier elements. Return to text.
  17. Current theories of how Population III stars worked and formed have multiple problems of their own. See Have Population III stars finally been discovered? Return to text.
  18. In 2017 the LIGO/Virgo collaboration detected a gravitational wave signal that matched model predictions of a Kilonova (two neutron stars merging to form a black hole). The detection of a Kilonova was further supported by an associated gamma ray burst and visible light observations. Return to text.
  19. Because there is an accretion limit (dictated by the Eddington limit) and a merging limit (found from modelling). Return to text.
  20. Originally, in the 1970s and 1980s, evolutionists thought that Population III stars would range from 0.1 Solar Masses to 100 Solar Masses. Low mass stars (under 1 solar mass) burn through their nuclear fuel much more slowly, therefore Population III stars would exist much closer to Earth and could have been seen by earlier telescopes. But in fact, they have not been seen. Return to text.
  21. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_collapse_black_hole. Return to text.
  22. https://webb.nasa.gov/content/science/galaxies.html. Return to text.
  23. Big bang assumptions: Homogenous, isotropic universe (no edge or centre) that acts (at large scales) as a perfect fluid. Other slightly more reasonable assumptions: the laws of physics have been the same throughout history and are the same throughout space. Return to text.
  24. https://creation.com/galaxy-games. Return to text.
  25. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2276-y. Return to text.
  26. https://webb.nasa.gov/content/science/birth.html. Return to text.
  27. https://creation.com/giant-molecular-clouds. Return to text.
  28. https://jwst.nasa.gov/resources/SciQuest.pdf. Return to text.
  29. Carroll, B.W. and Ostlie, D.A., An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 2nd Edition, 6th printing, 2019. Return to text.
  30. The decay of the light released from the neutron star collision is prolonged due to heat generated by the radioactive decay of heavy r-process nuclei that are produced and ejected during the merger process. Return to text.
  31. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1676-3. Return to text.
  32. Studying the ice line in protoplanetary discs is seen to be important, and water has vibrational modes that absorb mid-infrared light (see fig 9). Mid-infrared EM is almost invisible to ground based telescopes because Earth’s atmosphere effectively absorbs mid-infrared frequencies. Return to text.
  33. https://www.almaobservatory.org/en/about-alma/how-alma-works/capabilities/star-and-planet-formation/. Return to text.
  34. https://webb.nasa.gov/content/science/birth.html. Return to text.
  35. https://webb.nasa.gov/content/science/origins.html. Return to text.
  36. https://exoplanetarchive.ipac.caltech.edu/cgi-bin/TblView/nph-tblView?app=ExoTbls&config=PS. Return to text.
  37. We have previously identified the increased interest in ET life to be a result of the promotion of Evolutionary theory: https://creation.com/alien-intrusion-10-years. Return to text.
  38. https://webb.nasa.gov/content/science/origins.html. Return to text.
  39. https://jwst.nasa.gov/resources/SciQuest.pdf. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Dismantling the Big Bang
by Alex Williams, John Hartnett
US $17.00
Soft Cover