At 7:20 a.m. EST on Christmas morning, a long-delayed and very expensive space telescope will launch from South America.
Unless the launch is delayed. Again.
If all goes according to plan — and that’s one galaxy-sized “if” — the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will allow us to see deeper into space than ever. By “see,” I mean it will capture light that began its journey 13.5 billion years ago, a long time ago in a galaxy far far far far far far away, perhaps only 50 million years after the universe was created. It will be able to see things 10 to 100 times more clearly than the Hubble Space Telescope.
The telescope will float a million miles above the Earth, four times farther than the Moon. It will station itself to remain in a cold spot on the Earth’s dark side so the planet can help block out the Sun.
That’s if it works.
Advocates in the House and Senate mustered enough support to save the project. Then there were more delays, and the telescope got even more expensive.
The current total cost for the JWST is estimated at over $10 billion, of which $8.8 billion covers development and manufacturing.
That’s just the part NASA is paying for, meaning every American is chipping in about $30.
The European and Canadian space agencies are throwing in another billion bucks combined. Europe’s contribution includes providing the Ariane 5 rocket launching the telescope from French Guiana.
By contrast, the Hubble Space Telescope cost about $1.5 billion when it was launched more than 30 years ago — and it’s required five fix-it trips by the Space Shuttle — but hey, it’s still working!
“There are on the order of a hundred, maybe more, single-point failures in the mechanisms, meaning if any of those don't work as planned, it's unlikely that the telescope will ever function as intended,” says Markus Loose, who has a PhD in applied physics.
In other words, there are at least 100 things on the James Webb telescope so critical that if just one of them doesn’t work, kiss that $10B buh-bye.
Markus is President and Chief Scientist for Markury Scientific. He’s worked for years on land-based telescopes, the Hubble Space Telescope, and now the JWST. He spent about a decade at Teledyne (formerly Rockwell Scientific) helping build two sensors for the new telescope that are so small you could hold them in your hand. Each contains millions of pixels.
His sensors will detect infrared light coming from the far reaches of the universe, light that’s traveled so far and become stretched so thin it’s no longer visible to the human eye.
This equipment isn’t cheap. There is no commercial market for it. It’s a one-off for NASA.
“These sensors, depending on the resolution, can go for several hundred thousand to $1 million or $2 million,” he says. “The JWST has several of these.”
But the sensors are the least of NASA’s worries.
The riskiest parts of the telescope are the mirror and the heat shield.
The mirror is needed to collect and reflect the light that hits it. It’s 21 feet wide, too wide to fit inside a rocket in one piece.
So the JWST mirror has been cut into segments and folded over on itself. Once in space, the mirror must deploy and fit together perfectly in order to work.
Then there’s the heat shield that will block heat from the Sun, Earth and Moon, heat which could interfere with the infrared light the JWST is capturing on its mirror. The shield is even larger than the mirror and is made of fabric. It, too, will be folded up inside the rocket and need to deploy flawlessly.
The testing and retesting of all these elements has created years of delays, but Markus believes that everything which could be done, has been done. “We’re hoping for the best,” he laughs.
How difficult is this mission compared to landing a rover on Mars? That’s a tough call. “There’s more mechanisms on JWST,” Markus says, “but timing on the Mars rover landing was extremely critical.”
There’s one huge difference between the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb version. One can be fixed in space, the other cannot.
NASA had the foresight to construct the Hubble in such a way that if it had problems — and it did, right off the bat — the telescope could be opened up manually and repaired. Its orbit is only 340 miles above Earth, reachable by the Space Shuttle, back when we had one.
The JWST will be a million miles up. If something goes wrong, we are SOL.
Markus says when the Webb telescope was being planned, NASA concluded there would be no way to fix it in space, so no one even tried. “The whole telescope was not built in a way that it could even be opened up or be accessible for repairs,” he says. Everything important on board “is all hidden inside” (including his two sensors).
So if the JWST breaks, is that really it? Will no one go fix it? Not even Elon Musk, Time’s ”Man of the Year”?
“You should never say never,” Markus tells me, “but it’s very, very unlikely.”
If the James Webb Space Telescope works, we will learn more about how the universe began and how fast it’s expanding. The telescope may be able to monitor so-called dark energy. “Dark energy is this phenomenon that the expansion of the universe seems to accelerate over time, of which we have really no good understanding,” says Markus.
Most importantly, we may get a better idea of whether other planets can support life.
We also don’t know what we don’t know. Every new space endeavor opens our eyes to something unexpected.
But don’t expect anything immediately.
After the Christmas Day launch, it’ll take a month just for the telescope to reach its orbit. Then it will take another month or so to deploy everything. Perhaps by late spring, we will have our first images. Since those images will be infrared, color will be added so we can “see” them, much like color is added to images from Hubble. (I didn’t know they add color to Hubble photos!)
“If you've ever seen any of the beautiful pictures that Hubble has created,” says Markus, “I think those from the James Webb will be at least as spectacular, if not more.” The new telescope has more pixels, higher resolution, and a bigger mirror to collect more light. “Anything coming back — if it just works — will be spectacular.”
The James Webb could send those incredible photos for 10 years, until the fuel on board which keeps it in place runs out.
Markus Loose says this is by far the biggest and most exciting project he’s ever worked on. Saturday morning he will watch the launch from his home in California. NASA is limiting gatherings at the launch site because of Covid, and seeing the launch in person would be difficult anyhow since it’s located in the French Guianese jungle. As of this writing, there’s still a possibility weather will cause another launch delay.
The JWST will be the most expensive mission of its kind.
We could do a lot of other stuff with $10 billion. Why fund this?
“Had we not spent this money on this telescope, nobody would've done it, right?” Markus asks. “Now the question becomes should we, as humankind, or as a country, invest in trying to expand our knowledge about our world, the universe we live in? To me, the answer is absolutely yes. That has always been the case. We always try to explore. We always try to learn more.”
I’m with him. We may learn there are many Earths out there, and that may help us appreciate the Earth we have. It’s one thing to discover life-supporting planets light years away; getting to them may be impossible.
So I’ll be up early Christmas morning to watch the launch. It’s not lost on me that this epic scientific adventure happens as Earth’s largest religion celebrates the birth in this world of the God of the Universe. A story that involved a star.
And if the JWST works, it’ll be the best Christmas gift ever for those who still look to the stars in wonder.
Correction: an earlier version of this story said the JWST did not have any solar power. It actually does. Doh!
Update from Christmas morning: I got up at 2 a.m. HST and watched the flawless launch. I especially enjoyed the flight director counting down in French. Here’s my favorite screengrab, as the telescope separates from the upper stage rocket to begin its journey alone. For a brief moment, the camera on the rocket sent back live video of the JWST floating away. For a telescope that will send us images for the next decade, this is the last image we have of the telescope itself.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is a space telescope worth $10 billion? What would you like to learn from its discoveries? Please leave a comment and I will respond, especially if you think I’m insane to support $$$ for a telescope.