If you want to see the state of the art, there are worse things than taking a look at the James Webb Space Telescope. Millions have done just that in the past few weeks as the 10 billion dollar NASA project that was a decade in the making came into being on Christmas Day. As the successor to the now venerable Hubble Space Telescope, the JWST is intended to penetrate much further into space and thus look much further back into the past, possibly to the formation of the first galaxies. If all goes well, what the Real Engineering video mentions above will give us a glimpse into the “early universe that we and all we know were born”.
But you don’t just look up to look back 13.5 billion years. No, “the combination of technologies required to make the James Webb Telescope possible is unique in this period in human history.” This includes the heat shield that will deploy around its delicate components from the heat of the sun up to the onboard cryocooler that uses the mid-infrared detection instrument (which even allows the observation of many more stars and galaxies than previous telescopes) at a cool seven degrees Kelvin to the gold-coated beryllium mirrors that can absorb unprecedented amounts of light.
As complicated as the development and implementation of the JWST may be, “the really nerve-wracking process starts on the seventh day,” says the spokesman for the Real Engineering video. At this point, after the satellite has found its precisely determined position 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, the heat shield begins to unfold, and “In this unfolding sequence there are over 300 individual points of failure: 300 chances for a ten- Billion dollar, 25 year project over. ”With that process underway at the time of this writing, the teeth of the project’s engineers are undoubtedly firmly anchored in their nails.
Moving on, even nervous space exploration fans (who have had a lot of excitement in recent years) might consider distracting themselves with the Neil DeGrasse Tyson episode above StarTalk. In it, Tyson has in-depth discussions about the conception, purpose and potential of the JWST with NASA astronomer Natalie Batalha and filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn, his documentary The hunt for planet B examines the “search of the JWST team to find another earth under the stars”. But let’s not rush: even if the shield unfolds without any problems, unfolding the mirrors is not tricky. What we see through the telescope will no doubt change our ideas about the place of humans in the universe – but if it works as planned, we can enjoy human competence.
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Colin Marshall lives in Seoul and writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. The book is one of his projects The stateless city: a stroll through 21st century Los Angeles and the video series The city in the cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.