Barring last minute glitches, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST or Webb), successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, will be launched from the European Space Agency’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, next Friday.
The Webb was developed by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. Its 21-foot-diameter primary mirror has more than six times the light gathering power of Hubble’s 7-foot 10-inch mirror. That, plus Its enhanced sensitivity to lower frequency light, will allow it to observe galaxies much more distant (and therefore farther back in time), perhaps near to the birth of our universe 13.5 billion years ago.
Webb is also capable of detecting many more exoplanets within our own Milky Way galaxy, and in more detail, than the 5000 or so already discovered. It will look for biochemical signatures, molecules associated with life, on planets that lie within habitable zones (where liquid water can exist) of the stars they orbit.
The 25-year development of the Webb has accrued a cost of 10 billion dollars. That sounds like a lot of money. Is it worth it? I most emphatically answer yes. Here’s why:
First, for perspective, we have spent 400 billion dollars on a single USAF fighter program, the F-35, over the last nineteen years. Our US defense budget for next year is $753 billion.
Second, I have always wondered, as you may have, if we are alone in the universe. Webb could help answer that question, not by looking for messages as in the SETI program, but by analysis of exoplanet composition. Can we find indications of even primitive life, or at least another Earthlike planet? Doesn’t that excite your curiosity?
Third, this project is a testament to how human beings can overcome the toughest technical challenges in accomplishing something positive. With all the bad stuff going on (divisive politics, Covid, pollution, climate change, mass murders) the Webb should be uplifting, a bright island in a sea of dark news.
Launch of the Webb is not the nervous part. The Ariane 5 booster has a great record for reliability. The nail-biting comes with the sequence of unfolding Webb’s 18-segment primary mirror, its secondary mirror, and its multilayered sun shield. The telescope will be sent to the L2 Lagrange point, in sun orbit a million miles from Earth, so if anything goes wrong in the deployment sequence, we have no capability to send astronauts to fix it, as we did five times with Hubble.
There are folks who have invested their entire careers working on the Webb. If it fails to deploy it will be a crushing blow. If it succeeds it will be an achievement to rival our moon landings. If all goes well, it will still be six months of deployment steps and instrument calibration before we start getting science results. Something to look forward to next year!
See the NASA Webb Space Telescope fact sheet for more detail.
Bob Moores retired from Black & Decker/DeWalt in 1999 after 36 years. He was the Director of Cordless Product Development at the time. He holds a mechanical engineering degree from Johns Hopkins University