September 23, 2023

The birth of a new space telescope takes a lot of time and a lot of money and inspiration. Astronomers began harassing NASA for the successor to the Hubble space telescope, even before that telescope was launched into orbit in 1990. Back then, they thought it could cost less than a billion and be ready in the first decade of the 21st century.

Thirty years, $ 8.8 billion, several breakdowns and budget crises, and an impending cancellation of Congress later, the James Webb Space Telescope is finally ready. NASA now plans to launch them into orbit from a location in French Guiana on October 31, aboard an Ariane 5 rocket supplied by the European Space Agency.

During a recent American Astronomical Society meeting, technicians and engineers demonstrated the telescope for what they hoped would be the last time for local people.

“The next time the observatory looks like this,” said Eric Smith, project manager for NASA’s telescope, “it will be beyond the moon and appear to us as a point source of magnitude 17.”

The telescope, fully assembled in its clean room in Northrop Grumman, Los Angeles, resembled a giant sunflower riding on a surfboard during the conference. The flower’s petals are 18 gold-plated beryllium hexagons that are joined together to form a bowl more than 20 feet in diameter. The surfboard that it will float forever on the other side of the moon is a sandwich made from five layers of a plastic called kapton that protects the telescope from the heat and glare of the sun.

The telescope, named after the NASA administrator who guided the agency through developing the Apollo program, is nearly three times the size of the vaunted Hubble and seven times more powerful in its ability to spot faint stars and galaxies at the edges of time .

To launch them into space on board the Ariane 5 rocket supplied by the European Space Agency, the shield and telescope mirror must be up and deployed in a series of around 180 maneuvers a million miles in space in the first month. The steps of this mission have been practiced again and again in recent years.

An early rehearsal ripped open the sunscreen, causing further delay in the project.

The engineers believe they have it right now, but they are calling the upcoming deployment and testing phase in space six months of terror. And there are still a couple of inches of tears in the kapton that need mending, said Dr. Smith.

The Webb Telescope’s mission is to explore a realm of cosmic history that was inaccessible to Hubble. About 150 million to a billion years after the beginning of time, the first stars and galaxies were born and burned out of a gloomy nebula of hydrogen gas that reigned at the end of the Big Bang. How exactly this happened is unknown.

The mission requires that the Webb be tuned to a different type of light than what our eyes or the Hubble can see. Because the expansion of the cosmos rushes these earliest stars and galaxies away from us so quickly, their light is shifted red to longer wavelengths, like the siren of an ambulance shifts to a lower register as it passes by.

The blue light of an infant galaxy, which was then littered with bright new stars, was extended to invisible infrared wavelengths – thermal radiation – until it reached us 13 billion years later.

As a result, the Webb Telescope creates cosmic postcards in colors that no eye can see. However, to detect this weak heat output, the telescope needs to be very cold – less than 45 degrees Fahrenheit above absolute zero – so that its own heat doesn’t wash the heat out of space. Hence the need for sun protection that keeps the telescope in permanent, cold shade.

As it turns out, infrared emissions are also great for studying exoplanets, worlds that belong to other stars. This approach was promoted in 1996 in a central report by a committee headed by Alan Dressler of Carnegie Observatories under the heading “HST and Beyond, Exploring and Finding Origins: A Vision for Ultraviolet-Optical-Infrared Space Astronomy”.

Their vision was forward-looking. At that time, exactly three exoplanets were known. In the decades since when the Webb telescope was moving through a painful development, exoplanet research flourished. NASA’s Kepler mission found thousands of exoplanets, meaning there are hundreds of millions in the galaxy for astronomers and the Webb to observe.

In fact, one of the Webb’s most anticipated early results will be the planets in the Trappist-1 system, just 40 light-years from here. It contains seven planets, three of which are Earth-sized rocks in what is known as the habitable zone where water could exist. Among other things, the Webb telescope can smell the atmosphere of these planets by seeing how they interact with the light from their respective stars – a first step in investigating whether potentially habitable planets are actually habitable or even inhabited.

This search for life is the focus of a new documentary about the Webb telescope “The Hunt for Planet B”, directed by Nathaniel Kahn and premiered in March at the South by Southwest Festival. The film also documents, somewhat to Kahn’s surprise, a sociological revolution in astronomy – namely, that many of the leaders in the field of exoplanets are women.

The billing of functions goes to researchers like Jill Tarter from the SETI Institute, a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial civilizations. Natalie Batalha of the University of California at Santa Cruz, a director of the Kepler Mission now planning Webb observations; Margaret (Maggie) Turnbull, an expert on habitable planets at the University of Wisconsin and a former candidate for governor of that state, whom Mr. Kahn interviewed while tending her beehives in the backyard; and Amy Lo, a Northrop engineer who works on racing cars when she’s not making sure all of the Webb parts fit together.

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” says Dr. Tarter when he is asked by Mr. Kahn about life in the universe. The experts and priests have been removed from the equation: “We don’t do religion here, we do science.”

Mr. Kahn was nominated for Oscars for his film “My Architect” about his father, the architect Louis Kahn, and “Two Hands: The Leon Fleisher Story” about a pianist who lost the use of a hand due to a neurological condition. He is a longtime amateur astronomer. He had set out to make a film about building the telescope, but one of the joys of filmmaking, he said in an interview, is that “you start doing it about one thing, Webb, and it naturally evolves into much deeper story. And that’s really the emergence of women at the forefront of astronomy. “

Sara Seager, a planetary expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose story helps shape the narrative of the film, said the making made perfect sense. “When exoplanets were a brand new field, by definition the field could not be dominated by old white men,” she told the New York Times in an interview. “In fact, senior scientists were reluctant to enter a brand new and seemingly risky field, so there were few to no people prejudicing the community.”

Dr. Seager remembered her shock when attending cosmological conferences that almost all speakers were men with white or gray hair. “There just weren’t any niches in cosmology for new kinds of people,” she said. “In the exoplanet sub-conference no one was over 40 years old and most were under 30 years old.”

Dr. Batalha said the exoplanet field was originally headed by men like Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz from the Geneva Observatory, who received the Nobel Prize in 2019 for discovering the first exoplanet, and by William Borucki from NASA’s Ames Research Center, who designed and directed the Kepler -Mission, but women had prospered and advanced.

“If you talk to the older women in exoplanet science, you will find that all of our stories are different,” said Dr. Batalha. “We survived for a variety of reasons. And we stayed for a variety of reasons. And now that we are here, other young women may find it easier to imagine going the same way. “

So far, 4,332 astronomers from 44 countries and 45 states as well as from the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have submitted proposals for the first round of Webb observations, as Christine Chen of the Space Telescope Science Institute announced during the Webb show. and tell. About 31.5 percent of researchers are female, which is roughly in line with recent statistics that a third of astronomy doctoral students go to women.

“Of course we built in diversity,” said Dr. Smith, the project manager, on the Webb program during the last Show and Tell.

He added, “As scientists, we also know that the universe is seldom revealed through data that fits our models or theories. Rather, it is this data that is beyond our expectations that brings us closer to a universal truth. As we know, we have to try to understand our data, which differs from our preconceived ideas, in order to better understand the cosmos, we have to look for different perspectives when designing and building missions. “

Webb’s fall launch will be a major space exploration event this year, along with the next robotic invasion of Mars this winter when the newest fleet of robots lands there.

It is not crazy to believe that if this pace continues, perhaps in the next half century we will learn that life in the nearby cosmos exists in some form, be it under the ice of a giant planetary moon, under a rock on Mars or in the heat in an alien alien swamp. Any clue would be a huge step in understanding the whys and whys of our own origins.

Dr. Dressler and his co-authors wrote in their 1996 report: “A remarkable triumph of 20th century astronomy is evidence that this notion is true: that our origins, and perhaps our fate, are beneath the stars.” Science fiction’s popularity in In films, television and books, they wrote that “increasingly large themes of human existence are projected into space”.

“Our physical journeys into the cosmos may be generations in the future,” they concluded, “but our spirits are already living in the space age.”