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Alt text helps the visually impaired experience the James Webb Telescope images

Captured in infrared light by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth.
Captured in infrared light by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth.

"A starfield is speckled across the image. They range from small, faint points of light to larger, closer, brighter and more fully resolved stars with eight-point diffraction spikes. The upper-right portion of the image has wispy, translucent, cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula."

That's how a team of scientists, writers and educators described in vivid detail just one of the breathtaking celestial images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope so people with visual impairments could appreciate it, too.

"Space is for everyone. It shouldn't matter who you are," said Tim Rhue, an education specialist at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

His team wrote labels for pictures stuffed with distant spinning galaxies, glowing clouds of gas and blazing stars using the alt text feature on social media apps, which is designed to make the internet more accessible.

It allows people who use screen readers to hear a description of an image and helps when images on a website won't load.

Here's another example of an alt text description from another Webb image: "A large, translucent, red oval surrounds the central stars. From the red oval, shells extend in a mix of colors. The shells appear to have a filamentous pattern similar to the surface of a cut citrus fruit."

Rhue said he was astonished by the images the telescope captured, and he and his team wanted that astonishment to be shared by everyone.

"This is definitely a labor of love," Rhue said. "There are so many things that make life difficult for people, but this is just pure joy, the universe out there."

The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, under development for decades and launched into space in December, is NASA's newest and most powerful. On July 12, the first color images were released. And scientists have been poring over the data that's come coming from the telescope.

Jennifer Lotz, director of the International Gemini Observatory, is part of a team looking at one field of thousands of galaxies.

"We know these galaxies pretty well, but seeing these images with James Webb, it's like putting glasses on," Lotz told NPR. "Like, things we couldn't see before now are just crystal clear. And it's been overwhelming. It's been really overwhelming."

Jacob Bean, an astronomer with the University of Chicago, described what the telescope has brought.

"It's like a birthday and Christmas and an anniversary and a graduation and Thanksgiving and Hanukkah all wrapped into one for us and happening just every day," Bean told NPR.

And Rhue's team is helping to spread that joy even farther.

"We love seeing people's face light up," Rhue said. "We love seeing people really get the big picture and our place in it all."

NPR's Raquel Maria Dillon contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Rivers
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Don Clyde

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