by Fraser Hibbitt for the Carl Kruse Blog
Cheer and mutual congratulations. Inside the Space Telescope Science Institute’s control room, they have just caught the news. The ten-billion-dollar twenty-year construction of the most powerful space telescope has been successively deployed. The golden mirrors have opened without fault and it now flies new-born into space towards its orbital station one million miles away. Days of anxiety are relieved. Getting into space is never a journey of certainty, and add to that the complex mechanisms by which the telescope was to ‘unpack itself’ – step by step in an orderly fashion, three hundred and forty-four steps, actually.
Two weeks of contorting in space and now the golden mirrors have clicked into place creating a six and a half meter eye to scour the heavens. It is the most complex task ever attempted, and completed, in space. The riskiest parts are over. Some minor feats are still to be performed, but the parts, which had they failed to come together would have rendered the telescope inoperable, have been successful.
The wandering eye is the manifestation of the collective work done in over fourteen countries. A slow, meticulous construction. One piece at a time, undergoing rigorous testing, before being positioned. A scientist likened it to a Russian doll, perhaps thinking only of the complex layering necessary for the telescope’s construction. However, if one piece malfunctioned, the whole thing would have to be deconstructed, and built up again.
By the end of January, the James Webb Telescope will reach its destination at the second Lagrange point (L2). Then for about five years it will be functioning as a traveling observatory. The silent eye is going back in time. It is planned to view our atomic origin. By measuring and detecting Infrared wavelengths (not like the Hubble, its predecessor, which detected visible wavelengths), the James Webb telescope will be able to detect the light of the ‘pioneering stars’ of the first galaxy. A task the Hubble telescope did not account for as distant starlight stretches into the infrared spectrum by a phenomenon called Redshift.
The James Webb Telescope. Image: Space Flight Insider.
The stars that brought the end to infinite darkness; the stars that spun the first carbon atom and gave life, our life, to the universe. The conception, and fact of it, is grand, almost nostalgic. A starting point which lies quite outside our capability to fathom. How will the images of this event return to us on earth? – “they will be just little red specks” says Nobel prize winner John Mather. Little red specks. An image of just enough to provoke – that is all.
Going back to the first point has always been part of a nostalgic thrust in humanity’s actions. It represents something fundamental – like some wish to see the first lights out of the womb. Perhaps also to know, to realize the projection of life; a communion with God goes a long way. There will be something tantalizingly perfect about the reception of the ‘pioneering stars’; the red specks looking back like a mass of all knowing eyes while we probe the universe for all science can tell us – apart from, of course, the why of it all.
The origins are not the only thing the James Webb Telescope will be viewing. It will also be in charge of perceiving through the dusty space clouds, reporting on stars that are forming planetary systems. Another tributary of originality, and here it relates to our own earth. The James Webb Telescope is particularly looking for planets that are ‘Venus-like’ and to try and understand their formation. It is thought that our Venus once had water, and knowing now that Venus exists as a barren plane swimming in clouds of sulphuric acid, scientists have wondered whether this kind of global warming could tell us something about our own predicament.
Seeing the mechanism of climate change may add some hopeful turns for us, and, alternatively, give us a vision of what a future earth could look like. Venus-like planets are not Earth-like, of course, but the mechanism of climate change seems to be similar. By extrapolating evidence from other solar systems, we could gain perspective on the frequency, and variables, of this event. The clarity of space has also given the James Webb a chance to look at our own home, to analyze global temperatures and review patterns in our atmosphere.
Very soon now, the James Webb Telescope will reach its orbit, and like the Earth itself, will travel around the sun. An extension of humanity without a human on board. The telescope is a tour de force in scientific research, engineering, and in some ways, hope. The global effort to put James Webb into orbit speaks for itself; a united front of the scientific republic. As the warning signs of climate change spur on cause for transition, as well as a greater understanding of our planet, James Webb sits alone in space threading the myriad stories of our universe, so that we may glimpse an understanding of what it means to be a part of the cosmic mind. It is against the little red specks of time that we have put out a limb; we have no other way to announce ourselves.
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