Darkness. Total and complete. Few of us get to experience it.
At the bottom of a cave, perhaps; or in a basement when the power shuts off. But there’s usually some faint glow coming from somewhere. Even the night sky never seems truly black, not least because there’s usually a star or two twinkling in the distance.
So it’s hard to imagine a time when all that existed was darkness, when you could travel in any direction for millions of years and still see absolutely nothing.
But this is the story that scientists tell us, of the “dark ages” that gripped the Universe before the first stars ignited. And very shortly, they intend to show us that time, or rather how it ended – how the cosmos ultimately became filled with light.
They’ll do it using the biggest telescope ever placed beyond the Earth: The James Webb Space Telescope.
Launching in the coming days, JWST is on a mission to look deeper into the Universe – and therefore further back in time – than even the legendary Hubble Space Telescope, which it succeeds.
Equipped with a 6.5m-wide (21ft) mirror and four super-sensitive instruments, Webb will stare for days at a very narrow spot on the sky to detect light that has been travelling through the immensity of space for more than 13.5 billion years.