For most of the world, Saturday was another weekend filled with all the problems and dangers of this planet. The Omicron-fueled pandemic spread across the world. New York emerged from its first snowfall of the season. Turmoil continued in Kazakhstan and elsewhere
But in space. in the space, A tremendous victory was recorded in space on Saturday.
After a quarter-century effort by thousands of people, more than $10 billion in taxpayer funding, and some 350 deployment mechanisms that just had to go by, the James Webb Space Telescope fully flapped its wings. The giant spacecraft completed its final deployment and, by god, the process went smoothly.
Thanks to NASA, and space agencies in Europe and Canada, the world has a fantastic new space telescope that will allow humanity to look deeper into galactic time than ever before, and possibly identify the first truly Earth-like worlds. Will do around other stars.
I dare say that 99 percent of the world’s people don’t know or realize or care about the amount of work and engineering and paperwork that went into building, launching and deploying the James Webb Space Telescope. But for those of us who know, we know, And we are in awe.
Following the full deployment, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s chief of science, said, “This is an amazing milestone.”
Serious planning for a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope began in the 1990s, and scientists were keen to look further back, into the early universe. To do this they would need a dark, cold atmosphere far from Earth. That’s because collecting light from the faintest, most distant objects in the universe requires not only a very large mirror, but no background interference.
To do this, the scientists planned to build a telescope that would observe in the infrared part of the spectrum, where wavelengths are only slightly longer than red light. This part of the spectrum is good for detecting heat emissions, and such wavelengths are long enough that there is little chance they will be distracted by interstellar dust.
Such a telescope would need to be very cold, however, as scientists came up with how to design a large, tennis-court-sized heat shield to block light and heat from the Sun. But because no rocket has a super-large fairing, this heat shield and telescope will have to be folded like an origami to fit within the protective cocoon on top of the rocket. Nothing like this had ever been tried before. This heat shield required the better part of two decades to build, test it, and ensure that it could be deployed in space.
So, while the launch of the Webb telescope on Christmas Day two weeks ago was significant, it was the beginning of the end of Webb’s journey from concept to science operation. As part of the deployment process, there were 344 actions where a single-point failure could have malfunctioned the telescope. That’s a remarkable number without unnecessary potential, which is why many of the scientists and engineers I’ve spoken with in recent years felt that Webb had a good chance of failing once in space. .
But now that ultra complex heat shield is working. The temperature on the Sun’s side of the telescope is 55 °C, or a very, very, very hot day in the Sahara Desert. And already, the science instruments behind the sunshield have cooled to -199 degrees Celsius, a temperature at which liquid nitrogen is a liquid. They will still be cold.
Of course there is work to be done. the web still has to cross About 370,000 km to reach the stable Lagrange point, an orbit around L2. Scientists and engineers greatly examine and align the 18 primary mirror segments. Scientific instruments must be calibrated. But all this work is a bit more routine when it comes to science spacecraft. There are risks, of course, but these are mostly known risks.
So now we can be reasonably confident that Webb will, in fact, begin making science observations this summer. We should, literally, be in awe.