Wonders of Nature: Cosmic Cliffs

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Lesson Overview

Our first Wonders of Nature eLesson invites your students to contemplate the majesty of the universe through the brilliant images taken by the new James Webb Space Telescope.

Lesson Materials


Activity Instructions

A. Begin by projecting an image of the Cosmic Cliffs of the Carina Nebula found at SophiaOnline.org/CosmicCliffs. For added effect and to help students focus on the stunning image, consider making your room as dark as possible by turning out the lights and closing window shades. Give your students a few moments to observe the projected image. Then, ask your students how the image makes them feel. Accept reasoned answers.

B. Next, explain that the image is of the Cosmic Cliffs of the Carina Nebula, around 7,600 light years away. A nebula is a gigantic cloud of gas and dust between stars in which new stars are formed. Observable by the naked eye in the southern sky, the Carina Nebula was first discovered in 1752, and spans a region of the Milky Way Galaxy (our own galaxy) that is over 300 light-years. The region of the nebula referred to as the Cosmic Cliffs was first observed in 1826. The cliff-like appearance of the region is formed by intense radiation produced by newly formed stars eroding the walls of the nebula. Our ability to visualize this stunning phenomenon has improved over the years. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched into low Earth orbit in 1990, has provided many images of the nebula and the Cosmic Cliffs which have helped scientists learn more about how stars are born.

Here you may consider projecting the comparison image of the Cosmic Cliffs of the Carina Nebula, found at SophiaOnline.org/WebbCompare, that allows you to move a slider between a Hubble Space Telescope image and a James Webb Space Telescope image of the same region, demonstrating the increased power of the new telescope.

C. Continue to explain that the image we are contemplating of the Cosmic Cliffs of the Carina Nebula comes from the new James Webb Space Telescope, which was launched into deep space (about one million miles from Earth) on December 25, 2021. The James Webb Space Telescope is the largest optical telescope in space and is outfitted with four different infrared instruments and a 6.5-meter primary mirror, allowing it to observe a much larger segment of the infrared spectrum and area of space than the Hubble Space Telescope. These improved observation instruments, combined with its deeper location in space, should result in vastly clearer images (100 times more powerful) that reveal previously invisible details and a significantly improved ability to collect data about what is being observed. The first test images from the James Webb Space Telescope were released by NASA on July 12, 2022 and have awed the world.

D. Arrange your students into small groups and distribute to them copies of Handout A: Cosmic Cliffs. (Note: You may consider printing the handout double-sided and laminating them.) Continue to project the image of the Cosmic Cliffs.

E. Have your students discuss the image together in their groups using the discussion questions.

F. When they have finished discussing, call on groups to share about their discussions. Allow the conversation to go in unexpected directions.

Lesson Extension

If your students have access to computers or tablets, consider sharing with them the comparison images found at SophiaOnline.org/WebbCompare as part of their discussion. Give them time to move the sliders on the different images to compare the older images from the Hubble Space Telescope with the new ones from the James Webb Space Telescope.

Answer Key

  1. Accept reasoned answers.
  2. Our response to God should be one humility and gratitude, but also of immense awe and wonder at the beauty and majesty of His creation and what and how He has made all things.
  3. Accept reasoned answers. Help your students come to recognize that despite the vastness of the universe, the fact that God created each of us, knows each of us intimately, and love each of us unconditionally should at once be humbling and also fill our hearts with comfort and joy. Our God, who made all things, has prepared a place for us to live, grow, be loved by Him and by others, and to discover and learn about Him and His love for us. Some students, however, may express feelings of loneliness or isolation when confronted with the vastness of the universe, or that the vastness of the universe emphasizes our relative insignificance. While an understandable feeling, we know from our Faith that God has not and does not leave us alone, and, in fact, came to dwell among us and die for our salvation so we can live eternally with Him.
  4. Accept reasoned answers, which may include that God pays attention to the details. Far from being a clockwork God who set the watch and lets it run on its own, He is intimately involved in what He has made, ushering it to its perfection and completion at the end of time, when His reign will extend over all creation. The only thing that eclipses the wonder and majesty of God’s creation is His love for us.
  5. Accept reasoned answers. Help your students understand that the fact that creation is ongoing means that we now participate in God’s act of creation. It was not a static, once-upon-a-time act in which God created and then abandoned the universe. Rather, God continues to create and invites us to take part in it (when we create new families and have children, or when we create works of art, literature, and music, or in any of the other myriad of ways that we use our human capacity for creativity) and at the same time stand in awe at the mystery of His creative power.
  6. The different means and tools of science can discover the what and how of the universe — what things are and in many cases how those things came to be and are interrelated with one another. Faith reveals to us the why of things — why things are the way they are and the meaning of them. Together, these two methods of coming to understand the universe as it is, create a more full, beautiful, and meaningful portrait of existence.

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