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What Makes James Webb Telescope so Discussed



On January 24, 2022, the most promising scientific space vehicle, James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), was confirmed to have reached its destination. Launched on December 25, 2021, it is supposed to orbit the L2 Lagrange point, which is an invisible spot in space that has special gravitational parameters around it. Moreover, Webb’s primary mirror and the sunshield have been successfully deployed since its launch. As the initialization of the software, as well as the installment of some instruments, is still on the way and tests are being conducted, let’s dive a little further into the topic.


Why the Telescope?


Since the dawn of space exploration, the conundrum of the first stars of our universe has baffled the minds of the astronomy community. And that is where JWST comes in to unravel the deep mysteries of the verges of the universe and help scientists collect unparalleled and previously unreachable space data.


Since its inception in 1989, this long-term project allows the scientific community to increase knowledge on the beginning chapters of the universe’s history: from its early development to revelation of other, equally significant, aspects of the cosmos such as properties of Earth-size planets orbiting other stars and the much-contested rate of space expansion. It may also tell us if there is water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet and even point us to the probability of alien civilizations.


Apart from its technical powers, the telescope also gives the scientists an invaluable experience to gain expertise in implementing projects of such scale. Facing the significant challenges in actual development and procurement of funding for this project allows for mitigating such risks in similar projects in the future.


Who is James Webb?


James E. Webb, after whom the telescope was named, is a person of significant importance for the development of NASA and space exploration but also a controversy regarding the anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and possible bigotry.

James Webb, after whom the telescope is named

While not necessarily being a scientist himself but rather an administrator running the agency from 1961 to 1968, James Webb did, perhaps, more for science than any other government official before or after him. His outstanding support for space science clearly shows his adherence to the expansion of space exploration. While John F. Kennedy ran on the idea of landing a man on the moon, Webb considered space exploration far more than a political promise. His mind’s eye foresaw a balanced program of human space flight and scientific research resulting in strengthening both the nation’s education and aerospace industry.

Under his vision, NASA has invested in the development of robotics for further space exploration and sending probes to Venus and Mars. He also envisioned the idea of the telescope, writing about it as a major NASA effort as early as 1965. During his time at the head, NASA has launched more than 75 space missions in pursuit of knowledge about space.

Yet there is a shadow over James Webb’s reputation, which causes NASA even to consider renaming the telescope. Webb has raised controversy with allegations of his possible involvement in the persecution of LGBTQ+ rights. The allegations concern the cases of systematic firing and rooting out gay and lesbian employees in the United States of that time. Officials used to be concerned that gay people may be threatened to have their sexuality revealed and blackmailed with the goal of receiving secret information. In Webb’s case specifically, the allegations refer to Clifford Norton who was fired from NASA for being gay in 1963 during Webb’s administration. Yet a number of scientists refute these claims, stating there is no evidence that James Webb was involved and that if it were not for him, there might have been no telescope altogether.


How does it work?


The James Webb Space Telescope is put onto the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point (L2), which allows for the telescope to stay within a 1,5 million km distance from Earth without orbiting it. Webb’s primary mirror is more than twice the radius and 113 kg (249 pounds) lighter than the Hubble mirror. It has 18 hexagonal mirrors, 1,32 meters in diameter each, which help the telescope to unfold in space. Each of them will calibrate their foci onto the secondary mirror and then onto the infrared detectors, which register the data collected. The whole vehicle weighs 6,200 kg on Earth and is equipped with four main devices:

  • NIRCAM — primary imagers in the near-infrared range. Works on both short and long wavelength channels (0,6–5,0 microns) and has chronographs installed for observing poorly lit bodies by shading the star they are orbiting or the one obscuring the view. It is supposed to take hi-res photos of stars, galaxies, and exoplanets in the closest star systems.

  • NIRSPEC — equipment fitted with a Microshutter System (composed of 250,000 camera shutters) in order to estimate celestial bodies’ size, mass, and even chemical composition via studying the white-light spectrum. It takes over a hundred hours to gather this kind of information pointing in the same direction. Yet the device has a wide range of views, and the newly made system makes it much more effective.

  • FGS — Fine Guidance Sensor will vastly improve the precision of the telescope’s constant redirections onto different targets.

  • MIRI — consists of a camera and a spectrograph, but in the infrared spectrum, it has a long wavelength range. Such emissions are almost unhindered by passing through dust clouds and nebulas, allowing humanity to see the heavenly bodies that were mostly obscured before. The technology needs to be as cold as -266,5 C (-447,61 F), otherwise, it would sense its own heat, with the thermal emissions from the sun, Earth, and the moon being a problem. However, MIRI is partnered with two additional devices: the Cryocooler, a complex helium-based refrigerator, and a passive 20-m cooling system Sunshield, composed of five layers of differently coated Kapton sheets that act as the radiators.

Why does it take so long?


The project has faced numerous setbacks and challenges during the course of its development. When the project was officially launched in 1996, it was estimated to be completed and launched by 2007, with the costs rounding up to around $1.6 billion. But at the point of actual launch at the end of 2021, the overall project’s cost reached almost $10 billion.

There were several major hold-ups during the 30 years of the project’s development, some of which threatened the project’s continuation. One of the most major hiccups was the 2011 budget cut when the US Congress decided to pull the plug on the project and reduce NASA’s funding. Yet with the support of numerous scientific and congressional figures, the plan of cancellation got pulled down, and JWST has continued its development.


By and large, the construction of the telescope began only in 2004, preceded by 8 years of the project’s planning and R&D phase. In 2008, the preliminary design review was concluded, with the costs amounting to approximately $5 billion and the launch date set for 2014. In 2010, the critical design review raised the costs to $6.5 billion and pushed the date of completion to 2016. In 2018, the date was yet again postponed to May 2020, with the budget at about $8.8 billion. Gradually, the date moved to December 22, 2021, and the successful launch finally happened several days later on December 25.


Apart from that, we should also consider the overall impact that its development had on the space industry. A number of other projects have been affected by the leviathan of JWST. Some of the NASA projects were either canceled or rejected because of the financing issues as JWST took up a formidable part of the budget. Nonetheless, the telescope will most likely unveil enough truths to be called “worth it,” so only time will tell.

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