This has to be the most profound, most deeply significant photograph I have ever seen.
It was taken by the James Webb telescope stationed about 1.5 million kilometres from Earth in its orbit around the sun. It was positioned so that it moves in synchronicity with Earth. This NASA article gives more information about Webb’s orbit and why the mirror needs special shielding from heat sources. In a nutshell, it’s because the telescope primarily takes images from infrared light, which is heat.
The bright objects with the striations on the image are stars within our own Milky Way galaxy, in the telescope’s field of vision as it concentrates on objects in very deep space.
The rest of the light sources are galaxies. Some of them have been distorted into arcs, revealing the curvature of spacetime caused by the gravity of a cluster of galaxies in the image’s centre. Some of those galaxies are billions of light years away – and indeed, it’s important to remember that what we see is a glimpse of the past because it has taken so long for the light from these distant sources to reach the telescope.
Now let’s consider how many stars are in those galaxies.
Our own Milky Way contains somewhere between one hundred and four hundred BILLION stars. You might wonder why the estimate is so vague. One reason is because we’re IN the galaxy, so it’s hard to tell its size. It’s a bit like trying to tell how big a mansion is if you’ve never seen anything but the inside of one room.
As a NASA scientist explains…
“There isn’t a way to simply count the number of stars in the Milky Way individually – that’s where the estimates come in. To make an estimate, we have to calculate the mass of our galaxy, and then the percentage of that mass that is made up of stars.
Then we have to decide what the mass of an average star is so we can calculate the number of stars in the galaxy. This is not trivial either – you could say our Sun is an average sized star, which would give you one estimate for the number of stars in the galaxy. But our Sun may not really be typical – there are a lot of much lower-mass stars out there. Using a low-mass red dwarf as an average-mass star will give you a totally different answer for the total number of stars in our galaxy.” [source]
But let’s settle for one hundred billion. I don’t know about you, but that’s enough for me to feel that little old Earth is pretty insignificant on the galactic scale.
Let’s take it a bit further.
If there are one hundred galaxies in that image, that’s 100,000,000,000,000 stars (one hundred trillion). And there are literally thousands of galaxies in that image. And that’s just one tiny fragment of space, what the telescope could fit into the view finder. In fact, it covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground
Is their intelligent life out there? Who knows. But the building blocks of life on Earth, DNA and RNA, have been found in meteorites  which suggests those components are not uncommon. Surely, among the trillions and trillions of stars and the even more trillions of planets out there, another intelligent species developed some time?
Then again, if they had their own Xi or Putin, or perhaps an Emperor Palpatine, maybe they became extinct long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.
If you ever wondered why I describe myself as a ‘space nut’ – this is why. I love this stuff.
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