As an astronomer, Illinois State University Planetarium Director Thomas Willmitch has had his eye on the sky and beyond all his working life. When NASA recently released the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, Willmitch was more than a casual observer.

“In a short time, Webb is allowing us to see more than we could before,” Willmitch said of the detailed images of star births and glittering galaxies and cliffs. “The clarity leaps out at you. It’s spectacular.”

The Webb Telescope, described by NASA as “the world’s premier space science observatory,” is a project led by NASA in partnership with the ESA (European Space Agency) and the CSA (Canadian Space Agency) that’s been decades in the making.

Its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, has been in operation for over three decades and is in orbit around Earth. The Webb Telescope, launched in December, will orbit the sun, about a million miles from home.

Willmitch, a fan of Hubble, has been blown away by Webb’s technology in the early going, especially its Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). The NIRCam covers a range of the infrared wavelength that allows it to cut through thick space dust as far back as 13.5 billion light years to capture images that Hubble can’t.

“For anyone interested in science, and particularly in astronomy, this is the start of a new era in astronomical research,” Willmitch said. “It opens new horizons for us and starts us on the quest for the nature of the universe.”