Side-by-side photographic glass plates and photographs by James Webb show how telescope technology has advanced since the 1800s

A glass plate image reveals the Carina Nebula, left, taken in Arequipa, Peru on April 7, 1896. James Webb House Telescope image of the Carina Nebula proper.Harvard Faculty Observatory, Astronomical Photographic Glass Plate Assortment

  • In the 19th and early 20th centuries, astronomers cataloged the universe on glass photographic plates.

  • Astronomers are still studying these plates, which record the sky for almost 100 years.

  • Compared with faint objects stamped on plates, the James Webb House Telescope photographs show dramatic improvements in telescope technology.

Today, mankind’s most advanced telescopes allow astronomers to look far into the universe. NASA’s latest and most powerful astronomical workhorse, the James Webb Space Telescope, has been providing crisp photographs of the most distant objects in the universe since July.

Long before astronomers developed advanced technology for telescopes like Webb, they cataloged the universe using an early form of images on glass plates.

For nearly 100 years, from the late 19th century to the 1980s, astronomers used glass photographic plates about as thick as window panes to capture light from stars, clusters, and other celestial objects. To map the sky, they painstakingly hand-positioned a telescope over an object for an extended period of time. The exposures had been made on glass plates coated with photosensitive emulsions, the astronomers then growing the plates like film in a darkroom.

Astronomers meticulously studied these sheets of clear glass, which were negatives, dotted with dark spots of stars and different cosmic objects.

Annie Jump Cannon examines a photographic plate of the night sky on her desk at the Harvard College Observatory.

Astronomer Annie Soar Cannon examines photographic plates of the evening sky at the Harvard Faculty Observatory from the early to mid-20th century.Acc. 90-105 – Science Service, Data, Nineties-Seventies, Smithsonian Establishment Archives

The resulting plates, the first photographic atlases of the sky, allowed astronomers to determine a classification system for stellar objects, which eventually served as a file of the sky spanning nearly a century.

Astronomers still use these transparent plates because they allow us to perceive the stellar past and the evolution of our universe. Unlike Webb’s infrared images, photographic plates of identical elements of the evening sky show how evolving craftsmanship has led to clearer and deeper views of the cosmos.

“We’ve gone from the human eye to photographic plates, and now to digital units, in the case of the James Webb Home Telescope,” Giovanna Giardino, Webb scientist at the European House Company, told Insider. “Leaps in technology have allowed us to have larger telescopes, which can see fainter objects,” Giardino added.

In aspect-by-aspect contrast, photographs of the same cosmic objects taken on old-fashioned photographic plates and by Webb show just how superior our ability to grasp and explore the cosmos is.

Carina Nebula in the center, NGC3372 in the upper right of the plate.  Image taken in Arequipa, Peru on April 7, 1896.

A glass plate image reveals the Carina Nebula, left, taken in Arequipa, Peru on April 7, 1896. James Webb House Telescope image of the Carina Nebula proper.Harvard Faculty Observatory, Astronomical Photographic Glass Plate Assortment

The Carina Nebula, an assemblage of gasoline and younger stars, 7,600 light-years away and four times more massive than the Orion Nebula, was first discovered in 1752. It is a huge area of ​​star formation and younger, extraordinarily huge stars. , as well as Eta Carinae – an unstable system containing two huge stars that intensively rotate towards each other.

Harvard University Observatory has a group of more than half a million glass plates, including one taken in Arequipa, Peru in 1896 using a 24-inch telescope that lightly captured the nebula against a larger part of the sky.

In July, Webb also captured an image of the Carina Nebula, but there is a dramatic difference in scale between the two images. Nico Carver, a librarian at the Harvard Faculty Observatory, told Insider that Webb’s magnification potential is 100 times greater than what astronomers could capture in photographic glass plates.

“Webb is a marvel of craftsmanship. It’s very superior instrumentation,” Giardino said, adding that Webb’s potential has been made possible by developments in telescope technology over time. “Science is always based on what we all know,” Giardino said.

Image of Jupiter, taken at Wilson's Peak, Nevada in 1889.

A glass plate photo of Jupiter taken at Wilson’s Peak, Nevada, in 1889, left. The photo of Jupiter taken by the James Webb House Telescope in 2022, strictly speaking.Harvard Faculty Observatory, Astronomical Photographic Glass Plate Assortment

Galileo Galilei made the first detailed observations of the planet in 1610 with a small telescope.

Early photographs of the large gasoline present, top left, show faint bands of cloud and the Great Red Spot, an endless storm that has been swirling for hundreds of years. The image of the glass plate was taken in 1889 at Wilson’s Peak, Nevada, using a 13-inch telescope, according to Carver.

Glass plate image of Jupiter taken in 1927, left.  Webb image of Jupiter taken in 2022, right.

A glass plate photo of Jupiter taken in 1927, left. The photo of Jupiter taken by the James Webb House Telescope in 2022, strictly speaking.Courtesy of the Carnegie Establishment for Science; NASA, ESA, Jupiter ERS group; image processing by Judy Schmidt

Webb’s latest photographs, captured in July and released in August, showcase the planet’s turbulent environment and the Nice Pink Spot in an exceptional element. The telescope also noticed Jupiter’s skinny rings, products of mud particles from particles, and visible auroras at Jupiter’s north and south poles.

The image of Jupiter’s glass plate, top left, is from the Carnegie Institute, which maintains a group of 250,000 glass plates from the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile and the observatories of Mount Wilson and from Palomar, California.

Image of Stephan's Quintet taken in 1979, left.  Image of Stephan's Quintet taken with the James Webb Space Telescope in 2022, right.

A glass plate photo of Stephan’s Quintet taken in 1974, left. A photo of Stephan’s Quintet taken with the James Webb House Telescope in 2022, proper.Courtesy of Carnegie Institute for Science/NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

Stephan’s Quintet, a group of 5 galaxies 290 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Pegasus, was first discovered in 1877. 4 of the 5 galaxies interact gravitationally in a slow-motion merger. The fifth galaxy is much closer to Earth, about 40 million light-years away.

The quintuple is faintly visible in the photo of the glass plate taken in 1974, top left. On July 12, when Webb released his first batch of footage, Stephan’s Quintet was captured in an unprecedented element.

Stephan's Quintet near the center of the plate.  Image taken at Oak Ridge Observatory in Massachusetts on October 1, 1937.

A glass plate of the Stephan Quintet, taken at the Oak Ridge Observatory in Massachusetts, on October 1, 1937. A photo of the Stephan Quintet taken with the James Webb House Telescope in 2022, proper.Harvard Faculty Observatory, Astronomical Photographic Glass Plate Assortment

In response to Giardino, one of the many predominant causes why Webb can take such sharp images of the cluster of galaxies is due to his ability to detect infrared light. Webb’s image is a gigantic mosaic of nearly 1,000 photographs, according to NASA, containing more than 150 million pixels.

Extra pixels allow astronomers to capture higher-resolution views of the cosmos, according to Giardino. “It was a huge improvement,” she said.

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Michael E. Marquez