NASA released a new photograph of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 last week which depicts a cluster of galaxies in space invisible to the human eye.
The image was captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, a $10 billion satellite that took decades of research and innovation to develop.
While most of the world collectively gasped, Reddit user pizzafourlife’s reaction to the images was: Is that it?
“I was disappointed,” wrote pizzafourlife. “Without context, [it] is only an image of space.”
For thousands of people on Reddit and Twitter, that context was provided by an interactive tool created by John Christensen. The web application aligns images created by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Webb Telescope, allowing users to compare them side by side in real time.
Christensen is a software developer, but he studied physics in college and was fascinated by astronomy growing up.
“I grew up having a lot of fun looking at the Hubble images,” Christensen told NPR by phone. “I watched a lot of space documentaries on PBS with my dad and I watched a lot of astrophotography, mostly from Hubble.”
When he saw the first of the Webb images released on Monday, Christensen was impressed, but like pizzafourlife, he didn’t fully understand the improvement between Hubble and Webb without a benchmark.
” What is different ? he asked about Webb. “Why did we spend so much human engineering effort, time and money creating this thing?”
So he coded the app to answer his questions, and he shared it on Reddit and Twitter, where it went viral.
It reached tens of thousands of people and received thousands of responses. Christenson said many of the responses expressed the same kind of wonder he felt about the jump from Hubble to Webb.
“I think my favorite responses were people saying they showed this to their kids and they got really excited about it,” Christenson said. “That’s how I ended up getting into science, it was kind of inspired by the Hubble images.”
Even science educator and author Hank Green retweeted Christenson’s app.
For Christenson, the comparisons between the Hubble and Webb images are puzzling.
“[Hubble] has always been super amazing to me,” he said. “It’s been, you know, the pinnacle of human potential.”
“Hubble is extraordinary. And Webb far surpasses that,” added Christenson.
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