Hey, Starshine! Scroll Through The Universe With The Most Iconic Images Of Space

It’s a big year for astrophysicists. In October, NASA will launch the world’s largest, most powerful observatory into space. The James Webb Space Telescope, much delayed, much redesigned, has already cost $9 billion. But when it’s been installed just beyond the Moon’s orbit, its infrared sensors will peer through interstellar gas and dust, to see deeper into space than mankind has ever been able to.The Moon, at the speed of light, is just over a second away. The Sun is eight minutes away. As you look further into space, you’re essentially looking further back in time, seeing objects not as they are, but as they were when the light that you’re seeing first left them.Just as, theoretically, you could be looking at stars in the sky that have long since died, NASA says the new telescope can look far enough to see what stars, galaxies and solar systems looked like in the first billion years after the Big Bang (which occurred over 13 billion years ago). Crucially, a specially developed on-board camera will beam images back in high resolution.If you’ve been paying attention to the heavens, or at least astronomy news, you’ll have noticed how much clearer our views of space have become in the last few years. Until the 1990s, images of the cosmos looked like the inside of a discotheque — random pinpoints of bright light, bright blurry patches, mists of pinks, blues and purples.Since then, space agencies and observatories have zoomed in on multicolour nebulas, starbursts, black holes, the Sun in close-up and the moons on Mars. The Hubble Telescope, launched into low-Earth orbit in 1990, has revealed the depths of the universe with better and better clarity. The New Horizons spacecraft flying by Pluto, 3 billion miles away, revealed in 2015 that the dwarf planet has a heart-shaped feature on its side.Varun Bhalerao, assistant professor with the department of physics at IIT-Bombay and a scientist who worked on India’s first robotic telescope in 2018, says visuals are integral to the field. “Astronomy, because of its nature and scale, has no control over its experiments – we can’t fast-forward to see how the Sun might evolve. So observation is everything.”No one’s looking through telescopes to make those observations, anymore. Complex machines, often working in tandem with dozens of others, do the peering, measuring and data-collecting instead. And as they’ve improved, so has the view. “The visualised data bridges the gap between academic knowledge and what one would see in space. It’s not unlike discovering a work of art like the Mona Lisa, and seeing a whole new world,” Bhalerao says.This giant, gold-plated mirror panel is part of the James Webb Space Telescope. Due for deployment later this year, it will be the world’s most powerful space-viewing observatory. (NASA / JWST)Those pictures have a history of changing life on Earth. Copernicus’s sketches indicating that it was the Sun, not the Earth, at the centre of the universe, shook the foundations of 16th-century Europe and brought about a scientific revolution. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, didn’t pack a camera in his Vostok capsule in 1961. But the Apollo 8 crew, headed to the Moon in 1968, did. Their photo, Earthrise, depicting Earth peeking over the desolate lunar surface, showed us for the first time just how fragile this planet is, reminded us that it is all we have, and helped popularise the environmental movement.