Welcome to a special Space geek edition of Little Did I Know – featuring the James Webb Space Telescope.
To get you to the present, I’m going to first step you back in time, much like the James Webb telescope will be doing for us once it’s operational.
Many of the leading Christian scholars today believe that the birth date of Jesus was unknown by his followers, but that they chose Dec. 25th as the ceremonial date of his birth.
Partially because it coincided with the winter solstice – the day when light begins to return from darkness.
Well, this past Christmas day, NASA, The Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency launched a new light of hope into the darkness. and in about six months, we may be seeing things in a completely new light.
You may have heard of it’s predecessor – The Hubble Space Telescope. You know, the one that gave us this.
The Deep Field image fundamentally changed how we see the Universe and launched entirely new areas of science.
“It has been a foundation and a fundamental impact for astronomy and planetary science and I think JWST is only going to do better than what Hubbell has done” says Stefanie Milam, Deputy Project Scientist for The James Webb Telescope.
The James Webb Telescope, or JWST for short, is not only going further away from the visual noise pollution of the earth and the sun by a long stretch, it’s going to be able to use it’s infrared sensors to pick up the first objects that emitted light and heat about 100 million years after The Big Bang.
“I guess sort of layman’s comparison is like we have night vision goggles with Webb, so we can see through things and see different things that you couldn’t see with the Hubble Space Telescope.”
Hubble actually almost failed right out of the gate when a mirror error that is 1/50th the size of a human hair was discovered and a space mission had to be completed to give us the landmark images we see today.
But JWST doesn’t have the luxury of any repair missions.
This is a one-way trip. There is zero room for error. And this sucker cost nearly $10 billion and has been on NASA’s drawing board since the days of grunge.
“After launch, we have to go 1,000,000 miles away, so it’s quite a journey and within that journey, we are unfolding the telescope, so it goes from this compact configuration that will launch it, and it’s been nicknamed origami telescope, so everything kind of unfolds or like a transformer. So we have to pull the sun shield out. We have to deploy the mirrors. We have to get a million miles away.”
And remember. Zero room for error.
“We have 178 released mechanisms so it’s a lot of moving parts and that’s pretty terrifying when you talk about any space machine in general.”
Okay, well maybe not zero room for error. The best way to protect anything you care about is to have a backup plan.
“We have backups for almost all of them, so if something doesn’t happen, we get the telemetry, we can see what did or did not happen and we can either refire it or try to release the mechanism again or we can use our back up.”
Assuming Lady Luck is on our side and the wicked smart brains of the scientists involved crush it like they expect to, there will be earth-shattering realizations that demolish what we’ve understood thus far, and entirely new branches of science will come to life for the next generation to look into.
“I think that’s one of the real fun and exciting parts about this machine is what we are gonna find and discover and how it’s gonna contribute to Astrobiology and the search for Earth 2.0.”
After all, the most exciting response in science to v an experiment of this size isn’t Eureka!