On July 12, NASA released the first pictures from the James Webb space telescope. They were breathtaking, outstripping even art in depicting the vastness and beauty of our universe.
But it didn’t come easy.
It started with a lie. The Webb telescope was originally estimated to cost $500 million, then upped to $1.3 billion. It was scheduled to launch in 2007.
It ended up costing upwards of $10 billion and was launched on December 25, 2021. Once in space, it took six months to unfold and calibrate; allowing us to get the first released pictures in July 2022.
When NASA provided the original estimate, they knew that it was a very, very unrealistic goal. Partly, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Would this telescope have been attempted if Congress knew that it would take an additional 15 years and cost another $9 billion to build?
So why did the Webb telescope become so expensive? To meet their ambitious goal, scientists and engineers had to build a massive telescope. The sunscreen is almost 70’ high. The primary mirror (which is composed of 18 mirrors) is 21 ft. The Webb telescope ended up being so large that it couldn’t fit into the nose cone of a rocket. It was deemed the “origami telescope,” since it had to unfold in space.
The telescope was built at the Goddard Space Center in Maryland, is currently managed in Baltimore, but had to be tested in Houston. Just building the transportation mechanism (which requires its own clean room) took years. Other unexpected requirements, new materials, operating in extreme cold, the limitations of infrared, and of course, the inevitable mistakes piled on. Even its greatest supporter, Sen. Mikulski, got frustrated.
The Webb telescope was so complex that it had 344 single points of failure. A “point of failure” is a task that absolutely critical for the telescope to operate properly. As someone who has developed new technology, I can tell you…that is a lot!
Another technical problem, since the telescope would be orbiting in the L2 (called the Sweet Spot) orbit, one million miles away from earth’s orbit, it had to be built so that it could be repaired virtually. Unlike the Hubble telescope, there would be no astronauts to fix it.
Why did NASA develop the Webb Telescope? NASA was a victim of the Hubble telescope’s success. What scientists learned from the Hubble telescope dramatically changed their view of the universe, and astronomers, physicists, engineers, and others wanted to learn more.
The idea for the Webb telescope probably began in 1995, when the Hubble telescope was pointed at an “empty” patch of sky, the size of a straw. To the astonishment of all, using infrared technology, the Hubble telescope discovered thousands and thousands of galaxies and stars in that tiny, tiny patch of darkness. This tiny patch came to be called the Hubble Deep Field and made scientists realize that the universe was more massive than ever imagined and would be filled with billions of galaxies and stars. The Hubble Deep Field gave us an inkling of the vastness of the universe.
The Hubble telescope (and now the Webb telescope) can see into the darkness because they use infrared waves to “see” our universe. Infrared light, which is not in our visible spectrum, measures heat given off by an object. This is why our earth-bound telescopes could not “see” it.
The Hubble telescope gave us a peek into the vastness of our universe; but it has also helped identify the age of the universe (now estimated at 13.8 billion years), exoplanets (which are planets that orbit a star and could be habitable), two Pluto moons, the rate at which the universe is expanding, star and galaxy formation, and that every major galaxy is anchored by a black hole at its center.
These telescopes are capturing the universe back in time. Since light travels as 186,000 miles per second (300,000 km/sec); the tiny images we see today occurred billions of years ago, when some of these galaxies and stars were forming. A view through these telescopes is a view of history.
The Webb telescope has already discovered galaxies orbiting galaxies; stars orbiting each other (one dying) and the Southern Ring Nebula, a galactic nursery of sorts. Webb has discovered its own deep field, the size of a grain of sand, with thousands of galaxies and stars.
While the Hubble and Webb telescopes are the best known, there are 20 space telescopes actively gathering data. From the Gaia telescope, launched by the European Space Agency, which allows astronomers to calculate the distance between stars and galaxies; to the telescopes launched to detect particles. For example, The Dark Matter Particle Explorer, was launched by the Chinese to detect and understand dark matter. Russia has also launched a space telescope.
Although NASA footed the bill, we involved other global partners in the development of the Webb telescope: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
So, for the next 30 years or so, scientists expect to learn more about the universe. It makes me proud, that while our democracy is struggling, America continues to provide leadership in supporting science for the globe. A proud moment, indeed.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.