Alta Live: A Look into Deep Space with Professor Garth Illingworth

Early results from the James Webb Space Telescope are breathtaking—but what do they mean?

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Garth Illingworth, a noted astronomer, astrophysicist, and professor at UC Santa Cruz, was busy working on the NASA Hubble Space Telescope in 1987 when his director approached him with a new challenge even before Hubble’s completion; it was time to start working on the next mission. The result of this assignment, which eventually utilized thousands of brilliant minds, $10 billion, and 30 years, is the James Webb Space Telescope, a staggeringly complex piece of technology that was launched into space in December 2021 and started returning images and data to Earth just this summer. “The beauty of this image, the three-dimensionality, the structure there, is out of this world, literally,” Illingworth said of one of Webb’s photos.

Even more significant than the beauty of the images is the wealth of data they potentially contain, for scientists and civilians alike. “It’s gonna take us a lot of time to understand what’s going on,” Illingworth noted, explaining that the data contained in the Hubble images took years to decode. At the heart of the fascination for his peers, and for Illingworth himself, are fundamental questions about humanity: “We’re trying to understand our origins. Not only as people but in terms of our planet and how the universe built up, how galaxies grew from the very first stars right through now.”

Check out these links to some of the topics Illingworth and Spotswood brought up this week.

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