We’re in a crowded universe, but Earth is still precious

We all had a chance to see the universe more clearly with the release of the beautiful and dazzling first images of the distant and early universe from the James Webb Space Telescope. The first (above), known as Webb’s First Deep Field, is a sharp and detailed image of a cluster of distant galaxies (foreground) as they appeared 4.6 billion years ago. What puts it in perspective is that all that glittering detail is contained in an area of the sky as small as a grain of sand held at arm’s length. Outer space suddenly seems more crowded.

Other images and data from the infrared telescope released in recent days include the Carina Nebula, where young stars are born, and the Southern Ring Nebula, a cloud of cosmic dust and gas expelled by a dying star about 2,000 light-years away. Webb also discovered evidence of water in the atmosphere of a hot gas giant planet, named WASP-96 b that orbits a distant sun-like star.

“Webb is the first observatory that will allow us to explore worlds as small as ours,” astronomer Néstor Espinoza with the Space Telescope Science Institute said during a NASA webcast.

But the Deep Field image, in particular, seems poised to join a short list of images from astronomy and space exploration that are so significant they have helped redefine our understanding of the universe and Earth’s place in it. They include the 1968 Earthrise photo from the Apollo 8 mission, which shows our planet as seen from lunar orbit, and the 1990 “Pale Blue Dot” photo taken by the Voyager 1 space probe, in which Earth appears as a mere speck in a vast expanse of outer space.

For some, the takeaway from these new glimpses into deep space might be that Earth is small and inconsequential. That the more clearly we see the universe, in its rich vastness, the more our planet seems like an infinitesimal drop in a cosmic ocean.

Our growing understanding of the universe only reinforces the fact that Earth is our only home. It’s still the only planet we know of that sustains life. It’s protected by a thin and fragile atmosphere. It’s in danger from climate change and other human-caused threats. It’s still singular, precious and worth fighting for.