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Exploring the Early Universe with Webb

Season 6Episode 6Dec 12, 2023

The James Webb Space Telescope promised to show us “baby pictures” of the universe. Now in its second year of science, Webb is fulfilling that promise—and more. NASA scientists Jane Rigby, Taylor Hutchison, and Gerónimo Villanueva explain how they use Webb to peer back to the earliest stages of the universe and examine stunning plumes of water in our own solar system. NASA's Curious Universe is an official NASA podcast. Discover more adventures with NASA astronauts, engineers, scientists, and other experts at

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Episode Description: 

The James Webb Space Telescope promised to show us “baby pictures” of the universe. Now in its second year of science, Webb is fulfilling that promise—and more. NASA scientists Jane Rigby, Taylor Hutchison, and Gerónimo Villanueva explain how they use Webb to peer back to the earliest stages of the universe and examine stunning plumes of water in our own solar system. NASA’s Curious Universe is an official NASA podcast. Discover more adventures with NASA astronauts, engineers, scientists, and other experts at


[Song: “From Seedling to Something” by Norman]    


HOST PADI BOYD: Thank you for listening to NASA’s Curious Universe. If you’re new to the show and excited to learn more about the universe around us, welcome. You’re in the right place.   


HOST JACOB PINTER: We’re hard at work making new episodes, but we just wanted to stop for a minute and say thank you.   


HOST PADI BOYD: We’re very happy to have you here. And we have some good news for you. We have over 50 episodes exploring all sorts of fun topics, from human spaceflight to astrophysics and more.   


HOST JACOB PINTER: Whether you’re a total space nerd or a first time space explorer, I’m telling you, there is a Curious Universe episode for you. So find your favorite episode at or wherever you listen to podcasts.   


HOST PADI BOYD: So glad you found us.   


HOST JACOB PINTER: Thanks, and enjoy the show.   


[Song: “At Daybreak” by Lincoln Jaeger] 





Jane Rigby: My favorite image—hmm, I’ve got a couple. So it looks like this sort of ghostly white pearlescence that fills much of the image. And then there are hundreds of these white to yellow galaxies. And what you’re seeing is a city. In a galaxy cluster, there are hundreds or thousands of galaxies crammed into that same space. It’s the most urban part of the universe, a very busy place. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Jane Rigby is the senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. Since its launch almost two years ago, Webb has gathered a lot of images. This one caught Jane’s eye right away, and not just because it’s beautiful. It shows a galaxy cluster called Abell 2744. But more importantly, it shows what’s going on going behind that galaxy cluster.  


Jane Rigby: There are these red things that look stretched like taffy. You know, you take a Laffy Taffy, and you pull on it, you get a sort of funky stretched shape? You’ve got these stretched funky red things. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: The galaxy cluster is billions of lightyears away—more than halfway across the universe. And those “funky red things” are galaxies that are even further away, behind the cluster. The cluster acts like a pair of eyeglasses, distorting the light from the more distant galaxies and helping us see them better.  


Jane Rigby: When this one dropped, I will say that my peeps and I—like we all got on Zoom. And we spent like an hour or two just, like, geeking out about this. We’re like, Oh my God, look over here. And like zoom in and let me stretch it for you. Oh, that’s so pretty! 


HOST JACOB PINTER: This image was a long time coming. The Webb telescope has been in the works since the 1990s, and construction started in 2004. By the summer of 2022—after decades of hard work from scientists and engineers around the world—it was time to share Webb’s first images. Jane and the rest of the team were ready to show the world what it could do.  


Jane Rigby: The Webb telescope was built to do some really audacious things. And it’s been such a relief that even like the first images and the first science results to emerge were, “Yup, we did it.” 


[Theme song: Curiosity by SYSTEM Sounds] 


HOST JACOB PINTER: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. I’m your host for today, Jacob Pinter, and in this podcast, NASA is your tour guide. The James Webb Space Telescope is pushing astronomy to new frontiers. We’re seeing baby pictures from the early life of the universe, new details about our own solar system, and planets orbiting other stars that could show signs of life.   


In this episode—we’re diving into the new science that Webb makes possible. We’ll meet a couple of astronomers discovering unexpected black holes in the early universe and examining a gigantic plume of water on an icy moon of Saturn. And we’ll hear how Webb is also helping to launch the next generation of scientists at NASA and around the world. 


Jane Rigby has been on the Webb team since 2010. Back then, the telescope didn’t look much like a telescope. It was being built in separate pieces. And it would be a few more years before those pieces started to be assembled.   


Jane Rigby: There was a position and I applied and said, I don’t really understand what this is, but it sounds kind of cool. And I realized more and more that if Webb didn’t work, like we were going to be stuck. Astronomy was going to be stuck for a decade and science too. We really had to get this thing to work. 


[Song: “Outer Rim” by Brandon Seliga] 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Webb was designed to build on the legacy of the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories. Webb would primarily capture infrared light, which human eyes can’t see, and Webb’s primary mirror would be 60 times bigger than a previous infrared telescope called Spitzer, which made a lot of discoveries that Webb will study in more detail. 


Jane Rigby: The elevator pitch for Webb was we were going to visit a time when galaxies were young. We were going to find galaxies that, they’re so far away that their light has been traveling for more than 13 billion years to get to us. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: After decades of planning, construction, and testing, Webb made it to the launch pad on December 25th, 2021—Christmas Day. 


Unidentified launch voice 1: Trois, deux, unité. Top!  



HOST JACOB PINTER: … ready to blast off on a rocket provided by the European Space Agency.  


Unidentified launch voice 2: And liftoff.  


Unidentified launch voice 1: Allumage deux EAPs. Décollage! 


Unidentified launch voice 2: Décollage, liftoff. From a tropical rainforest to the edge of time itself, James Webb begins a voyage back to the birth of the universe.  


HOST JACOB PINTER: Once Webb was in space, it was time for commissioning, a delicate dance of unfolding and activating a lot of fragile parts.  


Marshall Perrin: In order to have the mirrors all act as one, they need to lined up to just within a few nanometers of one other. That ends up being—it’s a few hundred atomic diameters, the level of precision that we need here. So to do that, we step through a long process … [fades out] 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Webb’s engineers had to make sure everything worked the way it was supposed to. 


Jane Rigby: We have the best engineers on the planet. I trust them. It worked. It was exhilarating and scary, but it worked. The last couple months of commissioning was just this unwrapping a present. And the present was way better than I could have possibly expected. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: The more the team tested Webb, the more they realized it was even better than advertised. By July 2022, it was time to share Webb’s first images with the world. By then, the Webb team had realized the telescope can take images twice as sharp as NASA had promised.  


Jane Rigby: And there were a couple moments where it’s like, “Oh my. This thing’s really good.” Like the back away slowly from the computer, right? Like, Oh, my goodness, that’s better than it’s supposed to be by kind of—OK, by quite a bit. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Webb’s images are breathtaking, and if you want to hear more about them, we have another episode of Curious Universe dedicated to those very first images released from Webb. But for scientists, the telescope provides something even more beautiful: data. 


[Song: “Harmonic Echo” by Ella Ryan] 


Taylor Hutchison: I work with galaxies that—some of the ones that are the first we’ve ever found, you know, the earliest in the very, very distant universe, some of these first galaxies that ever formed. I try and find them and anything else I can pick apart to try and understand the very, very early universe.  


HOST JACOB PINTER: Taylor Hutchison is a post-doctoral fellow at NASA. She spends a lot of time looking at Webb data.  


Taylor Hutchison: Like, literally anything you find out about these galaxies and this time in early universe is of substantial advancement of that science. Like anyone who contributes to it is making a big contribution because we just knew nothing about it. And it’s so exciting to see, like, very rapidly over the span of just one year, we have a completely different understanding of what’s going on in the early universe than we did before. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Before Webb—or JWST, as the insiders call it—Taylor had used a ground-based telescope for a research technique called spectroscopy. That’s where light is separated into its components so scientists can see what chemical ingredients are out there. When she saw the first images from Webb, she knew it was going to change everything.  


Taylor Hutchison: And I remember I was taking my cat to the vet, and like having the live stream play on my phone as I was driving, and they showed this light fingerprint spectrum of a really, really distant galaxy—more distant than we’ve ever been able to get a spectrum of before. And I remember having to pull over, one, to look at it. And then also because I started crying, because it was just so beautiful. I mean, I spent my entire Ph.D. dissertation trying to study the same kinds of galaxies using a 30-foot wide telescope in Hawaii. And I could get maybe hints of the light of these galaxies, and then in two hours, JWST got so much more. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Taylor says that looking back at those early galaxies feels like cosmic archaeology. By looking far across the universe, she’s also looking far back in time.  


Taylor Hutchison: The universe is so massive—space is so vast—that light is not instantaneous. It has to travel. I mean, if you’re in a room, you turn on a switch your room is immediately lit up. But the sun even is far enough away from the Earth that it takes eight minutes for light to get to us from the sun. So you know, if you had an evil wizard go and disappear the sun, it would take eight minutes for us to stop seeing sunlight. And so you can imagine how much longer and longer it takes the further and further out in space you go from us. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: That means that when Webb shows us images that are billions of light-years away, we’re also looking billions of years back in time.   


[Song: “By Design” by Tord Jungsten and Trent Larsen] 


So, to understand what Webb is showing us so far, let’s take a trip to the very early universe. We’re sending our time machines as far back as they can possibly go: 13.8 billion years ago to the Big Bang. 


Taylor Hutchison: You have the Big Bang. And then you have, you know, this really rapid expansion of the universe. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: You may be wondering, just how big was the Big Bang? Well, for a fraction of a second, the universe itself expanded faster than the speed of light. How that happened is a whole ‘nother mystery. But over the next hundreds of thousands, and even millions of years… 


Taylor Hutchison: Millions of years for an astronomer is like, I think what other people might think of as like, a minute or something. Very small amount of time. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: … the universe started to take shape. First, protons and electrons found each other and formed the first atoms. For the next couple of hundred million years, the universe was a dark cloud of gases with no stars at all.  


Taylor Hutchison: You just have this universe that’s just awash with these hydrogen atoms and maybe trace amounts of other elementary particles. And then slowly but surely, these things start to connect, and they start to form these little clumps. The temperature is changing in this early universe. And suddenly, you have these little knots forming. And that’s the first stars that are forming. And as more and more stars are formed and they grow and they age and they explode, you’re having a more complicated universe beginning to form. And so with these first stars, you then start to have the first galaxies. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Just days after starting its official science operations, Webb captured the most distant galaxies ever seen by human eyes, including one that existed just 350 million years after the Big Bang. As light travels over those huge cosmic distances, it starts to behave strangely. Those distant galaxies are also moving away from us. By the time light reaches Earth—after billions of years traveling through space—the light itself has been stretched to a different wavelength. 


Taylor Hutchison: And so if you were to imagine that you’re standing on a sidewalk, and there’s this very piercing loud siren from a fire truck, and the fire truck is zooming past you, what you’ll hear as it approaches you, is this higher pitch noise. And then as it passes, you’ll hear it dropped to a lower pitch, so it’ll be like neyow. 


[SFX of siren] 


Taylor Hutchison: And that’s literally the sound waves being compressed as the fire truck approaches you, and then the sound waves being stretched out as the fire truck passes you. And so light behaves just like that. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Astronomers call that effect redshift. It means that if a star far across the universe is shining visible light, which we can see, by the time that light reaches Earth, it’s in the infrared spectrum that we can’t see. That’s one of the main reasons Webb is designed to gather infrared light.  


[Song: “Alpha Particles” by Peter Larsen] 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Webb’s science journey is just in its second year. But it’s already showing us that in the baby universe, galaxies are behaving differently than we expected. 


Taylor Hutchison: So there’s this understanding in astronomy that almost every galaxy—and definitely every massive galaxy—has some kind of supermassive black hole in its center. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: This is something we see from our own Milky Way to galaxies far across the universe. At the center, you can expect to find a black hole with a mass that’s millions or billions of times greater than our sun. 


Taylor Hutchison: These galaxies that have these supermassive black holes in their center—I mean, a very obvious question then would be OK, which formed first? Was it the black hole or was it the galaxy? And so when you’re looking in the very early universe, what you’re really expecting to see are, you know, a ton of baby galaxies that are just beginning to, you know, kind of grow, they’re like in their toddler phase, they’re growing and evolving.  


HOST JACOB PINTER: So you might think that in those baby galaxies, the black holes would be smaller too. It’s still early days for the science, but Taylor says that’s not what we’re seeing. 


Taylor Hutchison: Some of these black holes that we’re finding in these galaxies, the information that we have suggests that they’re very large already in this very early universe. And that is a really fun problem. Because how did they get so big so fast? And so it’s a really interesting, confusing question. We’re actively still trying to figure out why. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: That’s just one head-scratcher. Here’s Jane again with another: 


Jane Rigby: We also see galaxies that are done or at least taking a break.  


HOST JACOB PINTER: Astronomers thought baby galaxies would have huge appetites, constantly churning out lots of stars. But for some galaxies…   


Jane Rigby: They’ve just formed a whole bunch of stars. And now it’s like after Thanksgiving dinner, where you just kind of lean back and touch your belly and say, “Oh, that was great.” They’re done eating. They’re done. So we’ve got this—at some level, we’ve answered the question we wanted. We have taken the baby pictures in the universe, we know how galaxies got their start. But now we have a whole bunch of new questions. 


[Song: “Stars” by William Baxter Noon] 


HOST JACOB PINTER: In Webb’s first year of operation, Jane and other astronomers didn’t know what they’d find. Now they have a growing list of follow-up questions on top of all of our other big questions about the universe.  


Jane Rigby: I think of this telescope as like a Formula One racecar in a horse and buggy world. And there’s a lot of gears on a Formula One racecar, right? It’s—and I don’t think we’ve gotten up to the top gears yet. We just need to stare longer. We need to look at more places on the sky. We have to be patient and build up the science. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Webb is also showing us new details in our own backyard. We’ll hear how the telescope is changing the game for research in our own solar system. That’s after a short break.  


[NASA+ Promo Song: “What it Be” by Nwabisa Innocent Janda] 


HOST PADI BOYD: Hey Curious Universe listeners, do you want even more great storytelling, live launch coverage, and behind-the-scenes access into the world’s premier space agency? Well, let me tell you about NASA+. NASA+ is NASA’s new on-demand streaming service, out now on all major platforms. Get ready to travel through space from the comfort of your own home. The best part? It’s family friendly, there’s no subscription required, and it costs nothing. Check out Other Worlds, a documentary series that follows scientists as they explore planets in our solar system and beyond with the James Webb Space Telescope, or the new season of NASA Explorers, which takes you behind the scenes of the OSIRIS-REx mission to collect an asteroid sample and bring it back to Earth. You can download the NASA app on your phone, stream on Roku and Apple TV, or visit us online at See you there! 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Besides studying the early universe, Webb has a handful of other science goals. It’s going to look for new planets orbiting other stars and even evaluate whether they’re good candidates to support life. And closer to home, Webb is showing us new details about our own solar system.  


Gerónimo Villanueva: I mean, James Webb has been revolutionary for planetary astronomy. It has definitely changed the game completely. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Gerónimo Villanueva is a planetary scientist at NASA. 


Gerónimo Villanueva: I mean typically, you know, we’ve been exploring the solar system with almost anything you can think of. We have even spacecraft going to many of these objects. So we should know a lot about them. But nevertheless, every time we point James Webb, something new we discover. 


[Song: “Micro Life” by Peter Larsen] 


HOST JACOB PINTER: For a telescope designed to study the farthest edges of the universe, there are actually some challenges to make it work for observing closer objects too. Think about being in a car, traveling down the highway at 60 miles an hour. When you look out toward the horizon, you can track objects pretty easily. They appear to be moving but not that fast.  


But then, shift your focus to the side of the road, right next the car. Everything next to you—the plants and road signs—they seem to be whipping by. To keep just one object in focus, your eyes have to move really fast. Webb has the same challenge when studying planets close to Earth.  


Jane Rigby: So we had a speed limit of how fast we could track things. And from the get-go, our scientists were asking, Can we can we go a little faster? Is that actually our speed limit? Like are we, you know, can we push it? And they worked with the engineers to figure out what the actual technical limits of the system were. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: That opened up the possibilities for using Webb on our neighbors too. Mars, Pluto, comets: Webb is giving us a fresh look at all of them. One particular place that keeps surprising scientists is a moon called Enceladus.  


Gerónimo Villanueva: Saturn has a lot of moons and one of them is Enceladus. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Enceladus is a small moon, just over 300 miles across—or small enough that it could fit inside the Gulf of Mexico. On most of its surface, temperatures are below -300 degrees Fahrenheit—about the same as liquid nitrogen. So it’s not a very appealing place for humans.  


[Song: “Science Zone” by Peter Larsen] 


HOST JACOB PINTER: But here’s the good news: its surface is covered with a layer of ice, about 20 miles thick. And underneath, there appears to be an ocean of liquid water.  


Gerónimo Villanueva: And the interesting thing about Enceladus is that we had been there. We had a mission called Cassini.  


HOST JACOB PINTER: This was a probe that visited Saturn and several of its moons starting in the mid-2000s. Cassini made several close flybys of Enceladus. 


Gerónimo Villanueva: And one of the things that was revealed when we were there is that it has this massive jet of water coming in from the South Pole. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: This jet spits out water vapor at about 800 miles an hour. It’s so strong that the vapor shoots off into space for hundreds of miles. Inside that water cloud, Cassini’s instruments detected a mix of carbon and organic materials. So if we’re going to find life in our solar system, Enceladus is one of the best places to look.   


But it’s been years since our probe observed Enceladus. With Webb Gerónimo wanted to know, was that water plume still coming off the surface?  


Gerónimo Villanueva: We were expecting to like a little blip around there. So when we point the telescope, we took the data, first of all, we didn’t see anything obvious in the data. But then when we look at the specific fingerprints of water vapor, not anything else, we saw this massive amount of water coming out. And it was not only localized, it was everywhere. We actually saw water standing much beyond the little location of the moon. The plume was releasing so much water that it produced a cloud of water around it. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: We don’t know exactly what this would look like from the surface. But picture a geyser made of ice with water vapor pouring out of it, like the steam that comes off a block of dry ice, and there’s so much of it that the vapor flies into space and creates a cloud surrounding the moon.  


Scientists have zeroed in on Enceladus as a high-priority place to explore. Eventually we may send another orbiter there or even a probe to land on the surface. To reach the liquid water on Enceladus, that probe would have to pierce through miles of ice. But this discovery from Webb could show us a shortcut.    


Gerónimo Villanueva: The moment you discover there is a jet or a massive release of constant gases into the atmosphere onto a jet, you are effectively  producing a connection point to that ocean. So that naturally is like a connection path within that ocean and the surface, so now the exploration of that moon becomes much more accessible. If you ever go there, well I’m going to go close to that jet. Because this is where I can connect to the ocean underneath. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: There aren’t any probes headed to Enceladus—not yet. But starting in 2024, there will be a NASA probe headed to Europa, another icy moon. So Webb is also looking for plumes on Europa. And on Mars, Webb can work with rovers and orbiting probes to analyze gases in the atmosphere. So, across the solar system, Webb is helping NASA home in on its targets.   


[Song: “A Gentler Journey” by Danny Cullen, Nick Herbertsen, and Tord Jungsten] 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Research papers with Webb data are basically flying off the printing presses. They’re coming so fast that Jane can barely keep up. Now the Webb team is deciding what to study next. Even though Jane is the top scientist, it’s not totally up to her. 


Jane Rigby: I think if you ask, people would say it’s like a secret cabal or there’s, like, 20 NASA scientists and we all get together. Mm, no. There’s an open competition that’s open to the whole world for the best ideas. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: That doesn’t mean it’s an easy competition. For the last round of applications, only one out of every seven got selected. But it gives scientists from all kinds of backgrounds a path to using a revolutionary telescope.  


Jane Rigby: We want this telescope to be as powerful as possible, as effective as possible, as efficient as we can make it. We want the users, the hundreds of people around the world—it’s actually thousands of people around the world—who are using the telescope, to understand the data, to get all the information that they want out of it. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: As senior project scientist, Jane has to balance her own research with setting up other scientists for success. There’s a mental image of a great scientist that many of us have: a man locked in his office, scribbling furiously on a chalkboard, looking for a breakthrough all on his own. But that’s not how it works.  


For one, scientists don’t look a certain way, and most discoveries come from teams of people working together. For Webb, thousands of people have been involved, from planning, to construction, to using it for their own research. And as the leader of its science team, Jane has been making space for everybody.  


In 2022, the group Out to Innovate named her the LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year. Jane says she grew up without any queer role models. And now, she’s someone who other queer scientists can look up to, like Taylor, the postdoc we heard from earlier. 


Taylor Hutchison: Dr. Rigby is an exceptional scientist. She will fight for every student and early career scientist that she comes across, and she will take the time out of her incredibly busy schedule to make time for them. And it’s so clear how valuable mentorship is for her and how valuable it is for her to make sure that the next generation of scientists have as much support and opportunities and resources as they can. And on top of all of that, she’s also doing fantastic science. And I think there is no one better suited to be the lead of the JWST and represent it than someone like her. 


Jane Rigby: Oh my gosh, that’s so nice. You know, the thing about astronomy is that we are all harvesting olives from olive groves that we didn’t plant.  


[Song: “Drifting” by Lucie Treacher] 


Jane Rigby: We’re all benefiting from the people that came before us. For those of us who are minorities, there’s a lot of, like, the people who open the doors and the people that that were willing to look at the current system and be like, wait a minute, you’re right, that’s not fair at all. Like, maybe we should change. We all benefit from that. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: Jane says when she was a kid, she wrote a fan letter to Sally Ride, the first American woman to go to space. Sally responded with a signed photo, which still hangs in Jane’s office today. A while ago, the Curious Universe team got a note from an 8th-grader named Oona. Oona said she wanted to study astrophysics and maybe even work at NASA someday. Here’s Jane’s advice for Oona or for anybody else.   


Jane Rigby: Find something you really love doing. If you know what that is, just go for it. Just seriously go for it. And if you don’t know what that is, that’s OK. That’s most people. Keep trying stuff until you find something that lights you up. 


HOST JACOB PINTER: If that’s advice for becoming an astrophysicist, it also sounds like how to launch a space telescope. No matter how much you want it, how much you dream, or how much you prepare, there’s only one way to break new ground and make huge discoveries about ourselves and the universe we live in. You just have to go for it.  


[Theme Song: Curiosity by SYSTEM Sounds] 


HOST JACOB PINTER: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. This episode was written and produced by me, Jacob Pinter. Our executive producer is Katie Konans. The Curious Universe team includes Christian Elliott, Maddie Olson, Micheala Sosby, and of course, Padi Boyd. 


Our theme song was composed by Matt Russo and Andrew Santaguida of SYSTEM Sounds. Krystofer Kim is our show artist. Special thanks to Laura Betz and the James Webb Space Telescope team. 


If you enjoyed this episode about Webb, good news! In 2021, we released a themed mini-series all about the science, engineering, people, and launch of this incredible cosmic telescope. Find it in our episode archives wherever you listen. 


If you like NASA’s Curious Universe, please let us know by leaving us a review and sharing this episode with a friend. And, remember, you can follow NASA’s Curious Universe in your favorite podcast app to get a notification each time we post a new episode.  


Taylor Hutchison: I can say that I’m probably one of the few people—that I know of, at least—who’ve ever hugged a telescope. A weird flex, but sure.