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Mid-America explores more than meets the eye to NASA's recently-captured astounding images


Galaxies — Photo by NASA

Word of the Day: Spectroscopy

1: The process or technique of using a spectroscope or spectrometer.

2: The production and investigation of spectra.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Spectroscopy. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 15, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/spectroscopy


On Tuesday, NASA released the first images captured by its newest James Webb Space Telescope, revealing images of the Universe never before seen by the human eye. The attraction and fascination of its findings took the world's breath away — but there's more to it than just beautiful images giving a glimpse into the mysterious universe that surrounds the planet. Mid-America Science Museum Director of Education Casey Wylie explains just how important this feat is for the future of humanity.


Wylie says these images being collected by NASA help to tell the story of where humans came from, and how earth became an oasis for life.


"Was this coincidental? What was it? Are there more?" she asks, rhetorically. "It's really important for us to understand the life cycle of our own planet because whether we want to or not ... we've already had a huge impact on the story of this planet. Possibly irreparably.

"We don't really know what the life cycle of a planet is and what we have done to alter that, and we really need to have that information if we're going to successfully stay on our planet for as long as the human race wants to exist."


With increasing concern of climate change and global warming, Wylie said there is often talk echoing "save the planet," but she says it's not the planet that is in danger.


"I really think we need to change the rhetoric," she said. "The planet's going to be just fine. Look at Mars. We know it use to have water on it, we think it use to have life. Is Mars still there? Absolutely. Mars is fine — but it doesn't have any life on it.


"The rhetoric doesn't need to be 'save the planet.' The planet's going to be there. Save the humans. What we're trying to do is keep our planet habitable for us, because we have a very narrow range in the scope of things of places that we can survive.


"So by seeing other planets and other solar systems even, we can have a better understanding of what makes our planet so special, and how we can preserve it, and how we can potentially undo some of the harm that has been done already; or can we even undo it, and what other technologies will we need to adapt moving forward?"


Wylie said these images are more than pretty — they touch all walks of life.

Comparing the image quality of the new Webb Telescope to the Hubble Telescope, which is the primary space telescope that has been used since 1990, Wylie said it would be like going from a camera phone in the early 2000's to a professional Nikon used by a wildlife photographer today.


"It's basically going farther and seeing farthing — not traveling farther — but seeing farther and longer than the Hubble could," she said, adding that what makes the Webb Telescope "so special" is the fact that it's capturing infrared imaging.


"Infrared is the spectrum of light that we cannot see and it's on the lower end of the spectrum, which is why we're able to see things that are so old because it's the spectrum that's cast by dying stars," she said. "So we're seeing very, very, very old things that has never been seen before by the human eye, because the Hubble did not capture infrared to that extent.


"So not only are we getting more clear images, we're getting images of things we've literally never been able to see before."

Along with collecting the picture, Wylie says it's also collecting spectroscopy, which is looking at what colors are refracted off a spectroscope to deduce the chemical composition of the subject.


"So they're able to pull this data, and look at it and go, 'Oh, this is a potential exoplanet,' which means a planet that's not in our own solar system — it's in a distant solar system, possibly even in another galaxy — and they're able to figure out what these other planets are made of."


She said one image released by NASA even indicates one exoplanet has or had clouds at one point, meaning there is potential evidence of water being or having been on that planet.


Dive Deeper


Last year, MASM's digital dome returned post-pandemic with a half a million dollar "face lift" provided by the Oaklawn Foundation. Check it out, here. For the next couple of months there will be a pre-show with all dome shows featuring NASA's images with brief information about what viewers looking at, and why it's important.


Wylie said as more data comes in from the Webb Telescope, MASM will bring in more images to its programming.


"This is just the tip of the iceberg," she said. "It's a whole new evolution of what we can see and do and learn."

Dome shows are held every day at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m., and Wylie assure's there's "nothing like it in Arkansas."


"We have this beautiful, beautiful gift from the Oaklawn Foundation of not only having the digital dome theater itself in 2015, but the fact that they actually re-invested half a million dollars to update it very recently," Wylie said. "So the fact that not only they gave it to us, but they're helping up maintain it and keep us at the cutting edge — there's nothing like this in Arkansas.


"There are places that have similar technology to us, but we are right now at the very cutting edge of everybody in terms of or software and our firmware, and also we're a public institution that people can come to. Most of the others are on like college campuses or you don't think about it. So we really want to become a hub for astronomical information."


With space being the future, Wylie said it's important to continue to foster interested minds.


"If we're going to have our future astronauts and future space explorers, and maybe get to the Star Trek Utopia or whatever," she said laughing, "we gotta make sure our kids are interested in understanding it now."