NASA’s Webb Telescope could transform the way we imagine digital art, as well as our cosmos


Amid significant and justified disenchantment with digital media, NASA’s Webb offers a different course for understanding our relationship with technology. It offers a chance to scrutinize our existence with a better understanding. It could be the “blue marble” – rather looking outward and deep in time. And it promises to be more than one image – much more than just one.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

1972 blue marble was the Apollo 17 image which (along with some satellite images from the late 60’s) gave humans a complete picture of our planet. He renewed the environmentalists; it may even have helped avoid nuclear armageddon. (You mean impact? An earlier satellite image influenced The Whole Earth Catalog which in turn helped define the entire modern Internet.) But that image has also been repeated so many times that it loses its meaning these days – more like a “textbook cover” or a ” photo in my primary school class” than a revelation on the fragility of the ecosystem.

There seems to be little danger with this set of images, not so much that the images explode in our retinas. Incredibly sophisticated infrared technology on board Webb gives deeper, sharper images of our distant universe than our species has ever seen – and we’re only just opening up hours. The image you have already seen today is probably a piece of our sky representing something like “a grain of sand held at arm’s length”. Composed from infrared images to span different wavelengths, thousands of galaxies emerge in the magnifying glass of cluster SMACS 0723. This in turn lets you see images from the early age of the universe – about a billion years.

Cosmic cliffs. Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI. NASA: “What looks a lot like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening is actually the edge of a young star-forming region near NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the near infrared camera (NIR Cam) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth.
Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI. NASA: “This side-by-side comparison shows observations of the South Ring Nebula in near infrared lightleft, and mid infrared lightright, NASA’s Webb Telescope.

And he looks outward rather than inward. It’s a Total Perspective Vortex, only not so unpleasant as Douglas Adams imagined. (I’m sure Adams would have loved this week, anyway.)

It is worth reading all the details as made public by NASA:

NASA’s Webb provides the deepest infrared image of the universe to date

For an idea of ​​how far imagery has come, see the MIRI and NIRCam side by side Where Webb versus Hubble. It’s not iPhone 13 versus iPhone 12, technologically speaking – it goes from an older CRT to IMAX in one step.

NASA is releasing new images, but if you hadn’t listened, you might lose images of a star dying, for example:

NASA’s Webb captures Dying Star’s final “performance” in stunning detail

Or perhaps the least visual but most interesting picture from a data perspective, we get actual information about a planet’s atmosphere:

NASA’s Webb reveals in detail the scorching atmosphere of a distant planet

I think probably the most underrated JWST image of this batch is Stephan’s Quintet – produced from 1000 image files at 150 million pixels resolution. Four galaxies (and then a fifth in the foreground, hence the misleading name) appear in stunning detail. What we get then is essentially a blueprint of the hyperactive black holes of the young universe, spewing out superheated matter – the primordial soup of raw star creation. It’s like a close-up cooking show for the stars.

Details of this:

NASA’s Webb sheds light on galaxy evolution and black holes

Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI. NASA: “Like medical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), IFUs allow scientists to ‘slice and dice’ information into multiple images for detailed study. Webb broke through the shroud of dust surrounding the nucleus to reveal hot gas near the active black hole and measure the speed of bright outflows. The telescope saw these outflows driven by the black hole in a level of detail never seen before.”

I’m not suggesting that the digital media scene needs to double down on ‘gee-whiz’ techno-fetishism; I expect the art to need about as much as you needed to spend all your savings on an NFT about three months ago. We need more critical reflection, more contextualization of technology. Despite my framing here, I suspect we need even less of the notion of technology as somehow separate from the rest of society.

But JWST offers a glimpse of what advances in technology could not only obscure the reality around us, but bring it to light as well. It also represents broad scientific collaboration and multinational cooperation – at a time when it is badly needed in space, a field that recently risks becoming increasingly nationalistic, militarized, commercialized and cynical.

What this means for artistic creation, I think, is something that every one of us working in technology – aural or visual – will probably think about. But there is a certain artistry of space explorers here that also deserves recognition. By making these images available and accessible to the public, the scientists, I believe, deserve credit as artists – there is work to be done in simply making these machine images readable to our human eyes, in the words written at their subject and in how the images are transposed to our visible spectrum while maintaining accuracy.

We live in a world that constantly seems to threaten greater fragmentation, in which data is largely privatized, in which large datasets and AI often serve profit and propaganda in equal measure.

But here is a shared reality, in the public domain (literally and figuratively). It is a portal through which musicians and artists could also try to serve these common human interests, our wonder and our conscience.

I think it might even recast our view of AI and prompts – on understanding imagery with large datasets, rather than fantasizing about machine learning replacing human creation.

And I wonder both what new generation of digital art and what musical sounds might emerge from these revelations.

Given the threats we face, there is urgency. These images are billions of years old. But we don’t have a lot of time, whatever the scale.

Image credits: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI.

Good preview with high res stuff:

And for some reason this is a fuller gallery for Webb with a lot more background, coming from Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) of the Scientific Institute of Space Telescopes:

NIRCam was built by a team from the University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center.

MIRI was provided by ESA and NASA, with the instrument designed and built by a consortium of nationally funded European institutes (the European MIRI Consortium) in partnership with JPL and the University of Arizona.

bonus – check out the visualization of how the gravitational lens works in the image:


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