The James Webb space telescope launched today.
I have been simultaneously both looking forward to and dreading the day that this venture was officially launched. It’s been a long hard journey getting to this day, even for the vicariously interested in the subject. It was conceived of, then it became an albatross and was cancelled, then it was revived and now it has finally been launched.
The first time I heard about the telescope was back in 2013 when I took the featured image of the touring promotional telescope prop. I’ve checked in several times in the intervening years, checked in just to make sure it was still going to be launched one day. I had almost given up on the thing when I heard that they were launching it today.
I dreaded its launch because I vividly remember the launching of the Hubble telescope, the world’s first orbital astronomical observatory, cheering the successful launch only to discover that the lenses for the telescope had been shaped wrong and that it wouldn’t be useful unless astronauts went out into space and did repairs to it. We had staked so many hopes, dreams and dollars on the Hubble and from the layman’s perspective it was a complete failure even though it successfully made it into space.
Sure, after the corrective lenses were installed it took really pretty pictures, but the initial failure of NASA to produce a satellite that worked as planned colored my feelings of everything the telescope did afterwards. Not too long after that was the series of failures of NASA ventures that seemed to point to a failing of big government in my mind, an observation that seemed to apply to everything government tried to do.
It wasn’t until after I was disabled and had time to spend following abandoned childhood interests like space and science that I developed the understanding of just how hard it is to do anything in space. Just how many points of failure there are in even the launch of any rocket into space, let alone the kinds of complexities that go into the research robots that we seem to deploy every few years lately.
The complexity of the James Webb seemed almost to guarantee failure. Failure that could be delivered on Christmas day like a stocking full of hazel switches. Mercifully, blissfully, the launch went off without a hitch. I almost can’t believe it. However that is just the first thing that has to happen in order for the telescope to get to where it is going in shape to do the job that it needs to do. A complex list of automated instructions that have happen flawlessly in order for the telescope to function properly when it gets where it is going.
…and where it is going is beyond the reach of our current manned space technologies, so a rescue mission like the one that Hubble required to function will not be possible for the foreseeable future.
On December 28th the sun shield began to deploy and was successfully completed several days later. On January 5th the secondary mirror tripod unfolded. On January 6th the heat radiator on the back of the telescope (next to the instrument package) was successfully deployed.
Finally, on January 8th, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place and the primary mirror successfully unfolded and was secured in position. Now we wait six months until the telescope arrives at the stable orbit that was intended for it, and is cool enough to do the telescopic work it was designed to do. As a bonus, Webb used less fuel than expected to get into its insertion orbit, so it should have a longer than expected lifespan out on the edge of human space.
The light of distant galaxies has already reached Webb’s shiny mirrors and still-slumbering science instruments. Soon, the rest of the telescope will waken and start to make sense of it.theatlantic.com