What do Astronomers Eat for Breakfast the Morning their 10 Billion Dollar Telescope Launches into Space?

Answer: THEIR FINGERNAILS!

Hang on, science fans, this one is a nail-biter for sure.  The James Webb Space Telescope, currently set to launch (hopefully) on December 24th, 2021, represents billions of dollars of investment, 25 years in development, and the contributions of a massive team of scientists and engineers from all over the world.  The “Webb” is said to be the single most complicated science project that humans have ever attempted.  Should the Webb make it to space and function perfectly, however, it also has the biggest potential for discovery of any scientific instrument ever made.  We’re talking discovering-alien-life-forms-and-seeing-the-origins-of-our-universe BIG.  The complexity of the project can make the Webb seem intimidating, so this week we will do what High Touch High Tech does best — making the awesome science behind awesome things more accessible.  So, how does the Webb work?  Why is it so important?

The Webb Telescope: potentially the most profound science that science has ever scienced

This intimidating machine is already a work of engineering triumph.  First proposed in the late 1980’s, the Webb has been in the works for 25 years. It represents the life’s work of several scientists and engineers, all of whom will have the most stressful morning of their life when the telescope launches into space!  The Webb is different than the Hubble Telescope, which has brought many amazing revelations in its decades of service.  The Webb is specially designed to detect even the tiniest quantities of infrared light, not visible light as the Hubble does.  Engineers attest that the Webb can detect the infrared signature of a single bee on the moon as seen from earth. Creating a machine of this precision was a 25-year challenge, and the international efforts to create, test, and perfect it represent the very best of scientific endeavor.

This iconic image, captured by the Hubble, is known as “The Hubble Ultra Deep Field.” (Yes, those are ALL separate galaxies.)

An all-infrared telescope came with incredible design challenges.  For one, to detect distant infrared, it needed to be very large.  The mirror alone is 21 feet high, dwarfing the Hubble’s 8 foot mirror.  How to get such a large apparatus into space?  In a never-before-attempted design maneuver, The Webb team designed the huge telescope to fold up like origami so it could be packed into a rocket.  Once it is in space, the telescope will go through a 178-point sequence of unfolding itself!  Every single one of the 178 mechanisms must work perfectly, and so the efforts to ensure the Webb’s perfection went to great lengths.  Every mechanism was tested and retested using a series of counterbalances that replicate zero gravity.  A huge vacuum chamber was used to test the operation in the vacuum of space, AND the vacuum chamber was brought down to -400 F to test the machine’s operations at cryogenic temperatures.

The Webb’s primary mirror undergoing cryogenic testing

Why so cold?  As if flawlessly assembling itself in space wasn’t a big enough challenge, in order to be able to sense tiny amounts of infrared light, the telescope also has to operate at very, very, cold temperatures.  Although our eyes can’t see it, infrared is everywhere, and it gives off heat.  In order to sense tiny amounts of infrared in the distance, the telescope itself has to be heat-proof, or the instruments attached to it will only read the heat they are giving off.  This means the telescope will be operating a million miles from earth to escape the heat from the sun and the earth itself.  To keep it -400 F, it has been equipped with a series of 5 huge sunshields, each bigger than a tennis court and thinner than a human hair.  Only when the telescope is unfolded, in position a million miles from earth, and operating at -400 F will it be able to send its first images.

Webb scientists preparing the sunshades

What will it show us? For what the Webb could potentially reveal, 25 years of blood, sweat, and tears are entirely worth it.  Hang on to your seat, science fans, because this telescope is DESIGNED TO SEE THE EARLIEST LIGHT OF THE BIG BANG!!  13.5 billion years ago, the big bang produced the first light.  As the universe has expanded, that light has been travelling out at the edge of the expanding universe.  The light has been travelling so long that it has “redshifted,” or shifted to entirely infrared wavelengths.  The astonishing sensitivity of the telescope is designed to pick up the light that came from the beginning of the universe.  The Webb was designed, quite literally, to see back in time. As if that is not enough, the Webb is also packing spectroscopy instruments capable of analyzing the chemical biomarkers of nearby planets, giving us clues about planets or moons that may be harboring alien life. The Webb has the capability to answer two of the greatest questions in all of science: how the universe came to be, and if we are not alone in it.  If it functions well, the Webb is fully expected to revolutionize the field of astronomy for the next decade or more.  We at High Touch High Tech send our congratulations and thanks to the entire James Webb Space Telescope team for their decades of work in the name of scientific discovery!

Sources and Further Reading:

The Engineers and Scientists who built the Webb tell their epic story (Highly Recommended!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISQnriRRElY

A Useful General Overview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMxdeUJ0v2c

The Nerve-Racking Process of Launching the Webb: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/14/science/james-webb-telescope-launch.html

A Webb Engineer Explains its Importance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrY04VPDg8I

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