Wednesday briefing: The telescope revealing the secrets of the universe

In today’s newsletter: After the James Webb space telescope sends extraordinary images of Jupiter, astrophysicist Dr Becky Smethurst explains why it’s so important

Good morning. I was going to email you this morning about Liz Truss, but the idea filled me with such dread that I thought: sod it, let’s do the ineffable mysteries of the universe instead.

On Christmas Day last year, 30 years after its conception, the James Webb space telescope launched from French Guiana. On 28 December, it went past the moon. On 24 January, it fired its thrusters for five minutes and settled into its final orbit about 1.5m km from Earth. On 12 July, after months of painstaking setup, it produced its first image – showing us, for the first time, faraway galaxies as they were more than 13bn years ago.

The Webb telescope has been adding to this miraculous beginning ever since. Now it’s brought us something a little closer to home, a mere 615m km away: the most extraordinarily detailed images of Jupiter we’ve ever seen.

All of these pictures are just … amazing, evidence of humanity’s capacity for discovery and total insignificance at the same time. But they are also rich with new discoveries about the universe, and its deep history. Today’s newsletter, with Oxford University astrophysicist Dr Becky Smethurst, takes you through five stories told by Webb, and what they mean. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Food | Companies at the centre of the global grain trade have enjoyed a record bonanza amid soaring food prices around the world, prompting calls for a windfall tax. The figures renewed concerns of profiteering and speculation in global food markets that could put staples beyond the reach of the poorest.

  2. UK News | An attempted public murder of a senior gang member caused a nine-year-old girl to be mistakenly shot dead while being shielded by her mother inside her Liverpool home, the Guardian has learned. Bouquets and cards were left outside the home of Olivia Pratt-Korbel amid widespread horror in her city at the killing.

  3. Conservatives | Liz Truss has refused to commit to appointing an ethics adviser if she became prime minister, saying she has “always acted with integrity”. The previous ethics adviser, Christopher Geidt, quit in June after conceding Boris Johnson may have broken the ministerial code over the Partygate scandal.

  4. UK News | The student nurse Owami Davies, who had been missing for nearly seven weeks, has been found “safe and well”, the Met police has said. Concerns had grown for the 24-year-old’s safety since she was last seen on 7 July.

  5. Coronavirus | Twice as many deaths involving Covid occurred this summer as last summer, according to analysis of new data. Some 5,700 Covid deaths have been registered since 8 June – but rates have fallen in recent weeks.

In depth: ‘There’s no blank sky any more’

The James Webb Space Telescope is packed up for shipment to its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.
The James Webb space telescope is packed up for shipment to its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana. Photograph: Chris Gunn/Nasa/Reuters

Until now, the size of telescopes deployed in deep space has always been limited by the dimensions available in a rocket. For the $10bn Webb telescope (pictured above), Nasa and their partners at the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency relied on a solution riddled with risk: they folded it. (Watch a video visualisation of it assembling to its full size in space here.)

That undertaking was rendered still more complicated by the fact that, because they knew it would change shape once it was in the extreme conditions of space, the Webb engineers “had to build it the wrong shape so that it would warp to the right one”, said Dr Becky Smethurst, author of a forthcoming book, A Brief History of Black Holes. “There were 344 single points of failure where if any tiny thing had gone wrong, the whole mission would have been scrapped. It was months of anxiety.”

Another major source of uncertainty after the satellite launched was how closely it would hew to its intended trajectory – with any inaccuracy bringing with it the need to burn valuable fuel. “But it was perfect. We were promised five years of data, and instead we’re going to get 20. It’s just incredible.”

Smethurst, who works on the growth of supermassive black holes, is particularly excited by the potential to learn more about their interaction with the formation of galaxies. “It should help us answer the question: what formed first? Galaxies of stars, or was it the black holes in the middle?” she said. “It’s like an astrophysics chicken or egg.”

Here are some of the images this perfectly unfolded, impeccably directed telescope has produced – and what they show about how it operates, and the universe itself.


Webb’s First Deep Field

Webb’s First Deep Field, which showcases a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6bn years ago.
Webb’s First Deep Field, which showcases a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6bn years ago. Photograph: ESA/PA

The first of the Webb images to be revealed – by Joe Biden – shows a galaxy cluster known as SMACS 0723. The entire picture covers thousands of galaxies in an area of the sky equivalent to a single grain of rice held at arm’s length on the surface of the Earth. “We can see things in this tiny, tiny patch in way more detail than we’ve ever been able to with Hubble [the most powerful telescope until now],” Smethurst said. “It suggests there’s no blank sky any more – everywhere you look, you’re going to find something in the background.”

Like all of the images produced by Webb, what you can see here is not visible light – but signals in the infrared spectrum captured by the satellite in monochrome, sent back to Earth as ones and zeros, and then reconstructed. The different colours don’t denote literal shades, but the wavelengths of the signals, which tell us how hot the source was. Colouring the images like this makes it easier for scientists to detect areas for further study (and generates more public excitement than a black-and-white picture ever could).

In this image, the sharp, gleaming star at the centre is in our own galaxy. The fuzzy white dots below it are whole galaxies in the SMACS 0723 cluster, shown as they were some 4.6bn years ago. Better still, this cluster in the centre acts as a kind of magnifying lens for other galaxies which are much further away – as much as 13bn light years, almost back to the dawn of the universe. Because they are distorted in the process, they show as the arcs streaking across the image: red objects are caked in cosmic dust – a crucial ingredient of star formation – while green ones are full of hydrocarbons.


The Carina Nebula

A comparison of the James Webb telescope’s views of the Carina Nebula with Hubble’s equivalent.
A comparison of the James Webb telescope’s views of the Carina Nebula with Hubble’s equivalent. Photograph: Nasa

The comparison of this image of a nebula – a vast cloud of dust and gas studded with stars – to the equivalent area captured by Hubble is evidence of how much more powerful Webb is. “The Carina Nebula is in our own galaxy,” Smethurst said. “Although I think it looks a bit like the Lake District here. The value of this image is really in what is shows us about the benefit of looking at relatively nearby things in infrared.

“It allows you to pierce through the dust – these little molecules of heavier elements like oxygen and carbon which scatter visible light so that you can’t see the stars that have formed. In this picture, we get through that dust to the three dimensional structure of the nebula.”


Stephan’s Quintet

The first image from Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope of Stephan’s Quintet.
The first image from Nasa’s James Webb telescope of Stephan’s Quintet. Photograph: Nasa/PA

This image, constructed from more than 150m pixels sent by Webb, shows a group of galaxies in the Pegasus constellation, and provides scientists with the means to see how their interaction triggers the formation of stars. “This is my favourite, because it’s directly relevant to my work,” said Smethurst. “It shows four galaxies interacting, one of them with a growing black hole, and one which isn’t. What’s amazing is that if you zoom in you can see individual stars: until now we’ve barely been able to do that with our closest galaxy, Andromeda, and these are much more distant.”

The galaxy to the left of the formation is closer than the others – 40m light years away as opposed to 290m. The topmost swirl in the image contains a black hole 24m times the mass of the sun. “It’s an incredibly bright source of light,” Smethurst said. “What this shows is the gas swirling around the black hole lit up in all its glory.”


WASP-96b (spectrum)

A transmission spectrum made from a single observation using Webb’s Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) reveals atmospheric characteristics of the hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-96 b.
A transmission spectrum made from a single observation using Webb’s Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) reveals atmospheric characteristics of the hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-96 b. Photograph: Nasa/UPI/Rex/Shutterstock

This is not an image, but “it’s still enormously exciting to astrophysicists”, Smethurst says. The set of data reveals clearly that this planet, 1,150 light years away, has the distinctive characteristics of water.

Webb measured light coming from the WASP-96 system as the planet moved across the star – and the way the gas giant has “stolen away a little bit of the starlight” as it passes through its atmosphere reveals the unique signature of water, Smethurst said.

The findings are also important because they show “what the telescope is capable of”, Smethurst said. “This is a big bright planet, very close to its star. It’s easier to observe the light passing through the atmosphere because it passes in front of the star often. Because it’s so easy here, it suggests that with the harder ones that are further away and pass in front of their star less often like Earth, you won’t be wasting your time. It’s this idea of finding ‘Earth’s twin’ – something that looks incredibly habitable for life as we know it.”



A new Jupiter photo from the James Webb Space Telescope is depicted in space with enhanced colour that showcases the planet’s features in detail.
A new Jupiter photo is depicted in space with enhanced colour that showcases the planet’s features in detail. Photograph: Nasa/Zuma Press Wire Service/Rex/Shutterstock

If the primary purpose of Webb is to tell us more about light sent by faraway stars billions of year ago, it turns out to also be able to produce stunning images of our own solar system unlike any we have seen before. “I was amazed when I saw the level of detail here – I thought it would be washed out because it’s so bright,” Smethurst said. “But it’s very clever how they’ve used different wavelengths to capture different things.”

The red haze at the planet’s north and south poles are auroras – created by the interaction of particles from the sun with the planet’s magnetic field. The famous Great Red Spot, a storm so big it could swallow Earth, appears in white because it reflects so much sunlight. “And the darker areas reveal the areas where the light has pierced further into the atmosphere,” Smethurst said.

Valuable though Webb’s observations will be for scientists, images like this also strike Smethurst as important for their sheer, universal beauty. “Everyone is curious about the world we live in,” she said. When I heard that, I wondered if ‘world’ was the wrong word choice. But maybe it’s that in some way, this telescope expands our sense of where we live to encompass the entire universe.

What else we’ve been reading

  • We doth protest too little, argues Owen Jones in a comment piece that asks why Britons do not challenge their government to address the cost of living crisis, even though more than 40% of people aged 35 to 44 think rioting is in order. Jones isn’t inciting riots, but he is calling for mass protests. Craille Maguire Gillies, production editor, newsletters

  • Marina Hyde introduces us to some of the water company CEOs responsible for pumping sewage into our rivers. Their pay should be dependent on swimming in those same waters, she proposes: “Just think of it. The first wild swimming article you’d genuinely want to read.” Archie

  • Having recently spent six hours roundtrip in the car with a fledging toddler, I am grateful for Guardian readers’ tips on entertaining kids during long drives. Hint: it involves snacks – and sticker books. Craille

  • After the horrors of tabloid scrutiny as a presenter on 90s hit The Word aged 18, Amanda de Cadenet fled for America. She tells Hadley Freeman about what’s gone right since – and how Keanu Reeves helped restore her faith in men. Archie

  • Little Warrior, a new film from Guardian Documentaries and director Paul Sng, is a beautifully shot portrait of a female featherweight boxing champion from Venezuela and her fight to turn pro in the face of poverty. Craille


Football | Struggling Crawley set aside their miserable League Two form to claim a third Premier League scalp in four seasons by dumping Fulham out of the Carabao Cup with a stunning 2-0 success. Kevin Betsy’s side sit second bottom of the English Football League.

Football | Jill Scott followed Ellen White to become the second Euro 2022 winner to retire in two days. Scott announced on Tuesday that she had called time on a remarkable career that will finish with 161 England caps.

Cricket | Joe Root has praised Ben Stokes’s courage in dealing frankly with his off‑pitch issues in a new documentary, predicting the England Test captain’s openness “will better the environment we’re playing in”. “There’s a lot in there even I as someone who’s generally quite close to him wasn’t aware of,” he added.

The front pages

Guardian front page, 24 August 2022
Guardian front page, 24 August 2022 Photograph: Guardian

“Fury as grain giants profit from ‘unjust’ hunger crisis” – this morning’s Guardian front-page lead. The picture is of Olivia Pratt-Korbel, nine, who was “shot dead in bungled gangland hit” in Liverpool, a case about which most of the papers have something to say. “Unbearable” says the Mirror, while the Sun says Olivia was “Gunned down at bedtime and left to die”. “Just a child: innocent victim of gun wars” – that’s the Express, while the i laments for the “Youngest victim of gangland killings”, and the Metro pleads “Tell us who killed little Olivia”. The Daily Mail accompanies Olivia’s photograph with the headline “Picture of innocence to shame lawless Britain”. The Times’ splash is “Red Arrows engulfed by bullying and assault row”, while the Telegraph goes with “EU feared to be losing will to back Ukraine” – both also have an Olivia story and photo on the front. The main story in the Financial Times is “Shielding families from fuel-bill shock reckoned to cost £100bn”.

Today in Focus

Cormac Boyle, Bidish Sarma and Emily Maw at their office in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Revisited: The Division: New Orleans – part three

In 2020 a change comes to New Orleans. The city elects Jason Williams, a progressive Black prosecutor who promises to reckon with the past. One of the first things he does is set up a civil rights division, led by Emily Maw. The division takes on the case of Kuantay Reeder, and assistant district attorney Bidish Sarma is able to view Reeder’s case file. Will there be evidence inside to support his claim of innocence?

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

Martin Rowson Opinion cartoon 24 August

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Yum? … gummy bears made from a new composite resin.
Yummy? … gummy bears made from a new composite resin. Photograph: Reuters/John Dorgan

Wind turbine blades might be the last thing you can imagine wanting to eat. However, you may well be snacking on them in the future, with the next generation of generators set to be made from a material that can be melted down into gummy bears. Researchers in the US have come up with a composite resin for turbine blades, made from a plant-derived and a synthetic polymer that can be recycled – either into new blades or products such as sweets. At present, blades are usually made of fibreglass, with many eventually ending up in landfill. “The beauty of our resin system is that at the end of its use cycle, we can dissolve it, and that releases it from whatever matrix it’s in so that it can be used over and over again in an infinite loop,” said John Dorgan of Michigan State University. “That’s the goal of the circular economy.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.


Archie Bland

The GuardianTramp

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