The images of space produced by the James Webb Telescope have captured the attention of the world, giving academic experts and everyday stargazers the clearest picture of the universe ever seen.

“Even astronomers, like when we look at this, we had the same reaction as everyone else,” said Allison Strom, a Northwestern University professor of physics and astronomy.  

The Webb Telescope cost $10 billion and is the successor to the well-known Hubble telescope, which has provided pictures for decades.  

“The James Webb telescope has been something that astronomers have wanted to build for over 20 years,” Strom said. “Hubble – which was launched over 30 years ago now – really changed the way we saw the universe, but we realized that there’s a lot that we didn’t know about how things in the universe evolved.”  

The James Webb Telescope with large mirrors to capture light is specifically designed to look at some of the most distant objects in all of creation.  

Strom is one of a handful of scientific researchers who have used NASA’s high-powered telescope for her own research. She’s harnessing the telescope’s infrared capabilities to detect light that’s been traveling for 13 billion years, almost all the way back to the big bang.  

“It means that we are really among the privileged few who get to look at these data for our own science and begin to answer questions we’ve been trying to answer for – in my case – I’ve been trying to do this for a decade,” she said. “We definitely felt very privileged, not only to be a team that got to use the telescope during its first year, which was a very competitive process but also to be scheduled so early in that year.” 

In effect, she’s using the telescope as a time machine, giving us a glimpse into the distant past.  

She’s studying the chemistry of distant galaxies by examining the colors in the photos, specifically, the amount of light coming from each color. The colors are the clues about the density, temperature, and amounts of oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur present in the universe – all of which tell us how galaxies formed. That is considered a key to “cracking the code” to at least some of the secrets of the universe.  

“I think as humans a lot of what we spend time thinking about is where we came from, and a big part of that origin story is where our earth came from, and our solar system came from, and our galaxy came from,” she said.   

Her research, she said, could help unlock the code to some of the secrets of the universe.  

“What is most exciting and most important about studying galaxies is galaxies are the means by which the universe evolves and takes everything that was left over at the big bang and turns it into everything that we see around us,” Strom said.