All posts by waynespencer

The Grin from Space

On November 23, 2015 the Chandra X-Ray Observatory released the image below, of what’s come to be called the Cheshire Cat Galaxy Group. It is a fun image and is also the subject of scientific research. But it serves as an example of how we human beings look for meaning in things. It reminds people of the Cheshire Cat with its big grin, in the story of Alice in Wonderland. So we associate an astronomical phenomenon with an entertaining fictional story. It has become a popular astronomical image. But more than that it an enjoyable or humorous picture. It has been taken to mean a variety of things by various writers and bloggers. A few days after the Chandra X-Ray Observatory released the image, NASA also released it to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Einstein’s General Relativity theory was first published in November of 1915.

From a naturalistic or atheistic mind set, the universe can seem like an empty harsh place, with no purpose. But if you can accept there being a Creator-God who has made the universe with a purpose for our benefit, that makes it all have more meaning. From the Bible, we find that God has created things for our benefit, to show us His glory and draw us to Him. He wants the universe to stimulate us to ask questions and look to Him. So human beings found this in the sky but it can cause us to wonder about the universe and about the One who made it all. It is something that can be appreciated for both its scientific mysteries and just for enjoyment. There is more to space than just the beauty of nature and the mechanics of how the universe works. In the Good Heavens podcast we try to make things in astronomy meaningful from a Christian perspective.

Cheshire Cat Galaxy Group
The Cheshire Cat Galaxy Group. From the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

What is this Image?

First I must explain what the image is. You might suppose in looking at it that it is someone’s prank, that someone made it with a photo editor program and that it wouldn’t actually look like this image if you saw it in space. The image is of two galaxy groups, that have numbers SDSSCGB 8842.3 and SDSSCGB 8842.4. The SDSS label refers to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which is a major project to map the entire night sky. But the image is a composite of two images, one in visible light from the Hubble Space Telescope and the other an X-Ray image from the Chandra X-Ray space telescope. So, it is not artificially created at all. It just overlays the X-Ray image over the optical visible light image from the Hubble telescope. One “artificial” thing is that X-Rays are not visible to the naked eye, so they are artificially colored purple in the image to make the invisible light visible. To see it in space you would find it in the constellation of Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. If you could see it with the naked eye it would look like the Hubble image. But you’d need a big telescope and a long exposure to capture it. The Chandra X-Ray image used a 19.5 hour exposure time.

The next question is what is it a picture of? The bright objects in the image are not stars but galaxies. Two bright large galaxies make the two eyes of the cat, another makes the nose at just the right place, and you see streaks that make a roughly circular “boundary” that give the outline of the cat’s face. Scientifically it is caused by the two large galaxies (and smaller galaxies with them) that are moving at high speed toward colliding. (The two large galaxies are careening toward each other at about 1,350 km per second. This is about 3 million miles per hour!) There are very hot gases between and surrounding the galaxies that are heated to millions of degrees in temperature. These hot gases are giving off the X-Rays that make the purple color.

Another thing that makes the image well-known and interesting is that it is an example of gravitational lensing. The galaxies in this group are very massive. When you have a massive object or cluster like this and there are other galaxies directly behind it much farther out, the far galaxies light can be bent and distorted by the mass of the massive cluster nearer to us. This creates the streaks that seem to make a rough circle around the “face” of the cat. The galaxies far behind could not be seen without the gravitational lensing effect because they would be along our line of sight behind the cluster we see. There are a number of interesting examples of light bending around massive objects in space like this. Einstein predicted that gravity could bend light in this way even before 1915. Einstein’s theories on gravity have been confirmed in many experiments. Some people have difficulty believing in some of Einstein’s ideas but they have been confirmed over and over. They show that God has made the universe an amazing place that stretches our ability to understand. Einstein’s General Relativity concepts are not about the origin of the universe, they are about how masses and light really behave today in the universe. So this makes gravitational lensing part of experimental science, which we can usually trust. It is in the science of origins where we must be more careful about what we believe.

The Cheshire Cat grin in space has led to many interesting reactions and comments. One webpage showing the picture called it “Alice in Wonderland Meets Albert Einstein.” Another interesting website was that of an artist, Alexandra S. Badiu. She had a page of artwork that sort of puts Alice in Wonderland in an outer space context or with aliens (click here to see) Of course, I would believe God made the galaxy cluster that appears to make the “face” and God made X-Rays possible from it, but that doesn’t mean God somehow inhabits it. God is outside of the universe, not a part of it. Also, the Bible is clear that people should not worship anything seen in outer space because it is all created things. But a smiley face in space is very suggestive to us and stimulates our imagination. Imagination and science are probably more closely related than we usually realize. Appreciating the mathematical or scientific aspects of something in space should not keep us from enjoying something just because it is beautiful or entertaining. In the Good Heavens podcast we try to appreciate multiple aspects of astronomical phenomena and relate it to our faith. Brian May once said, “astronomy’s much more fun when you’re not an astronomer.” (He was a guitarist in the rock group “Queen” but he also had a degree in astrophysics.) But astronomers can also grin at the wonders of the universe.

Mysteries Behind the Grin

The Cheshire Cat galaxy group is technically what’s known by astronomers as a “fossil group progenitor.” A fossil galaxy group is believed to have one large galaxy that is significantly brighter than all the other galaxies near it in the group, and it gives off a lot of X-Rays. This group of galaxies does not qualify as a fossil group yet, but in about one billion years if the two eye galaxies merge together, then it would.

So, what astronomers think happened to this cluster is that small galaxies around the two bright eye galaxies have been spiraling inward making the two large galaxies even bigger. But the “fossil” term means that once the large elliptical galaxy in the center merges, then the cluster would essentially stay the same for a very long time while the gases heated up in the collision give off X-Rays. But there are mysteries about galaxy clusters like this. First, it is believed there must be a great deal of dark matter in these clusters in order to explain how they can cause so much gravitational lensing. So, galaxy clusters are often considered a good argument for the existence of dark matter. However, some fossil galaxy groups even do so much gravitational lensing that even dark matter models don’t provide enough mass to explain them. Another mystery comes up with their origin. From models of the formation of these clusters, in some cases even in the accepted age of the universe (about 13.8 billion years) they would not have time to form. The high temperature of the gases is sometimes a mystery also. These clusters are thought to be very old but in billions of years the gases should cool. So scientists would like to answer some questions about fossil galaxy groups.

In 1969, mankind from planet Earth landed men on the Moon and returned them safely home. That was a great accomplishment. It was an accomplishment which God was not left out of because of the faith of several of the astronauts, prayers for the Apollo program from people on Earth, and many fortuitous events that made success possible along the way. Good Heavens podcasts have shown this to be true in multiple podcasts including interviewing astronaut Charley Duke. But it took many more space accomplishments before mankind could get the Cheshire Cat image. Engineers had to create the Hubble Space Telescope, get it into Earth orbit, and then repair it in order to get the optical image that shows the galaxies and the lensing effect. Then scientists had to get the Chandra X-Ray Observatory telescope in space in order to get the X-Ray image of the same galaxy cluster. How fortunate we have been that God has allowed us to accomplish these things! But mankind still has many problems and needs God’s forgiveness and grace. I think Psalm 8:1, 3-4 would be appropriate to end with:

“O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
. . .
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.”

NIV 1984 Bible, Psalm 8:1,3-4.

Images from the James Webb Space Telescope

Recently in mid-July 2022 we began to see images from the James Webb Space Telescope. The new images are generating excitement and new questions in the scientific community. It is always exciting when new technology allows us to see something mankind has never seen before. The more we discover, the more new puzzles and mysteries are encountered as well. First of all, who was James Webb? He was administrator of NASA during the Apollo Mission years and gained a great reputation for helping accomplish important discoveries in space science. To go to the NASA official website for the James Webb Telescope, see

The James Webb Telescope (or JWST) is an infrared telescope and the successor of the Spitzer Space Telescope. Infrared telescopes are more effective from in space where they can be kept very cold. The JWST has several sheets of material that shield it from heat radiating from the Earth and the Moon. It has been placed at a special location known as L2, which is one of the “Lagrange Points” for Earth. In this location gravity makes it quite stable and it is never in direct Sunlight since Earth lies between it and the Sun. The James Webb telescope is said to be so sensitive that it could detect the heat given off by a bumble bee at a distance to the Moon! The JWST has 18 mirrors that are very precisely aligned to look in the same direction. Thus it collects digital image data and the data is magnified in a way that is essentially like stacking the 18 images on top of each other. There are three ranges of infrared wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum that can be viewed by the Webb telescope. Since all these wavelengths are invisible to our naked eyes, scientists essentially shift them to the visible range as desired to allow us to see them. Thus, the images generated do not show the objects in their “real” or “natural” colors, rather scientists can pick the colors to show different types of detail, depending on what they are wanting to study. This is how an infrared telescope is used and it makes for some beautiful images that are interesting to compare to the images from other telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope, for example.

Webb’s First Deep Field

The Hubble Space Telescope was famous for its “Deep Field” images in long exposures of a piece of ‘dark’ sky. So, it’s not surprising one of the first images released on July 11 by the JWST has been called the Webb’s First Deep Field (shown below cropped and resized). It is a composite image that took a total of 12.5 hours. It captures galaxies farther away than anything the Hubble Space Telescope could obtain. It is mostly an image of galaxies, but there are some stars at relatively nearby distances that show up with spikes. The stars with diffraction spikes are not important, they are only an artifact of the telescope. The telescope is really looking at what lies behind the stars with spikes. Near the center of the image to the lower right of the large spikes is galaxy cluster known as SMACS-0723. This galaxy cluster is massive enough to bend the light from galaxies behind it. So, the galaxy cluster is magnifying and bending light from the galaxies behind it. This is an example of gravitational lensing, something Einstein predicted. The lensing effect causes the distant galaxies light to be smeared out in an arc. The arcs look almost concentric around the large cluster.

Galaxy cluster SMACS-0723. Shows gravitational lensing of very distant galaxies.

Stephen’s Quintet

Next is a very famous group of galaxies that are interacting known as Stephen’s Quintet. It gets its name from five galaxies. In the James Webb image, three of the large galaxies show up in somewhat different colors, one greenish, one blue, and the one on top is purple and reddish. The blue elliptical shaped galaxy is nearer to us than the others. But these galaxies are distorting each other’s shapes and pulling gases and stars off of each other. The one above the others with red and purple apparently collided with the greenish one. The JWST provides a unique view of Stephen’s Quintet. This image is from the MIRI instrument, which is seeing mid-infrared light. This means it is looking through some layers of dust and gas to see deeper inside.

James Webb Space Telescope image in mid-infrared. Multiple galaxies interacting.

The JWST image of Stephen’s Quintet above is interesting to compare with another image of the same thing, below. The image below is Stephen’s Quintet viewed with a combination of X-Rays and Visible light. There are distorted galaxy arms and a blue shock wave visible in this image that are not visible in the James Webb image above. This shows how the MIRI instrument can see through outer material. The same region of sky around Stephen’s Quintet can look very different, when you are seeing different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. There are actually more than five galaxies in these images. Astronomers have been fascinated by the Quintet for a long time.

Stephens Quintet in X-Rays and optical light
This image shows Stephens Quintet in X-Rays and optical light. Rotated about 45 degrees counterclockwise compared to the JWST image above.

The Southern Ring Nebula

Next is an interesting pair of images, both from the JWST. The Southern Ring Nebula is shown below using two different ranges of wavelengths in infrared light. The left image is from NIRCam, the James Webb telescope’s near infrared camera. This camera uses lower wavelength light, which is of higher energy. Then the image on the right is the MIRI instrument, for mid-infrared light. The mid-infrared uses higher wavelengths, which are of lower energy. So, its like NIRCam sees the hotter material and MIRI sees through the outer layers to the cooler material within. The Southern Ring Nebula has two stars within it that orbit each other. The two stars can be seen in the image on the right. The star that looks less bright has already shed some of its material to make the nebula. The other star (brighter) may do the same, some day. We are basically looking at the nebula end-on. If we could see it from a side view, it would look like two bowls stuck together at the bottom, with a hole in their centers where the stars are. Space telescopes not only help us see what we could not see with the naked eye, they allow us to highlight different elements in the gases or see particular features by studying the light spectrum from the object.

JWST Southern Ring Nebula
Two JWST images of the Southern Ring Nebula. Left image is in near-infrared. Right image is mid-infrared.

NIRSpec and Spectroscopy

One of the great technical innovations with the James Webb telescope I think is what’s called NIRSpec, for near-infrared spectroscopy. Spectroscopy breaks down or splits the light into its component wavelengths (like a prism but JWST has something way beyond what a prism does). So, spectroscopy allows astronomers to determine what chemical elements are present in what they see. What is more, the JWST NIRSpec instrument can observe 100 objects at the same time! There is a sophisticated micro-shutter system operated magnetically where each micro-shutter is about the width of a human hair. With this system two objects may be near each other in the sky but one could be blocked out and the other measured in a very precise way. The spectroscopic measurements of the JWST will be very important for study of nebulas and dust, extrasolar planets, and other objects. I’m particularly interested in what the Webb telescope discovers about exoplanets. Already, the JWST has done transit measurements of one exoplanet, WASP-96b. This exoplanet is only 1/9 of the distance to its star as Mercury is to our Sun. It is a gas planet of about ½ of the mass of our planet Jupiter but it is about 20% larger than Jupiter in size. It is very “puffed up” and close to its star. WASP-96b requires only 3 ½ Earth days to orbit its star. The Webb telescope gathered spectra as WASP-96b passed in front of its star. This spectra showed very clear evidence of water vapor in the planet’s gases. This is not the first evidence of water in an exoplanet but the extraordinary thing is the clarity of the data from the Webb telescope.

Surprising Galaxies

So far the main surprise to scientists from the James Webb Space Telescope comes from very distant galaxies that have been detected. There’s likely to be much more debate in the scientific community about these findings. The JWST has detected evidence for the most distant galaxies ever observed. The greatest distances in the universe are often expressed in terms of redshift. The redshift is expressed as a number; before the JWST, the most distance galaxies might have had a redshift value of 11-13. But even though it’s been only a few weeks since images started being released, the JWST is making a stir over distant galaxies. In some things our beliefs tend to determine what surprises us. Thus, there’s a need to understand a bit about Big Bang theory to understand what is surprising about the JWST images.

In the Big Bang theory, the universe begins with a hot fireball and a very rapid expansion of space. In the Big Bang model, it takes a few hundred thousand years for the expanding fireball to cool down enough that hydrogen atoms can form. When hydrogen can form and remain stable this is known as the decoupling of matter and radiation. From this time forward, the universe cools down as it expands. But all there is initially is hydrogen gas. There were no stars or galaxies or nebulas. But there were regions more dense than others and it is thought that gravity would begin forming clumps of matter. There has been a long debate among cosmologists over which came first, stars or galaxies. The general consensus today is that the first stars formed first, perhaps often in clusters, and then they collected together into galaxies. This is a process that requires a lot of time. The process is ill-defined actually and is very much still a mystery to scientists. How much time would it take to form the first galaxy? It’s thought that the earliest stars may have formed about 180 million years after the Big Bang. This means that in Big Bang theory, after the universe expands and cools down, there would be a period in which there are not yet any stars or galaxies. Then if the above scenario is correct, stars would have to form and then collect together into galaxies. So this period in which there was not yet any stars or galaxies has been referred to as the “dark age” of the universe.

The significant thing about the JWST is that it is thought to be able to see back to about what would be the approximate end of the “dark age”. So has JWST seen the end of galaxies? Not yet. Case in point is an object labeled as CEERS-93316; it is known officially as a “galaxy candidate.” Its redshift is 16.7, which scientists would say this puts it at about 250 million years after the Big Bang. There may be other “candidate galaxies” detected by JWST with redshifts of as much as 18. We may have to wait and see if these numbers are confirmed by other researchers. But, this is way out there!! By known effects such as gravity, it is challenging to explain how galaxies could form so early after the Big Bang. JWST will give better information on these distant objects than we have had before, thus these distant galaxies are going to be objects of much scrutiny. One scientist studying CEERS-93316 expressed the problem as below:

“The observations of this galaxy push observations back to the time when we think the first galaxies ever to exist were being formed. Already we’ve found more galaxies in the very early Universe than computer simulations predicted, so there is clearly a lot of open questions about how and when the first stars and galaxies formed.”
(To read more on this go to )

Unlike what many Christians in the sciences say, I think the Bible conflicts completely with the Big Bang. The Bible doesn’t describe technical details of the beginning of the universe but it does give a time frame. The Earth and universe were completed in a week, from God’s miraculous activity. This implies that galaxies did not require a long process to form from gravity collecting stars together. Everything was complete and ready for the first man and woman when they were made on the sixth day. Thus, I suspect JWST will not see the end of galaxies. The most distant galaxies will look like galaxies usually look. But there could be surprises; there always are when we get to see with new technology. I think believing God created miraculously is more believable than believing that natural forces and processes did it all. Natural processes are just not up to the task of forming a universe.

Images: Public domain from NASA & the Space Telescope Science Institute (cropped and resized)