What’s The Point Of The James Webb Space Telescope?

Explore the purpose and significance of the James Webb Space Telescope, its advanced capabilities, and the quest to unravel the universe.

Video of the day January 25th 2020


From what it is, to whether it’ll truly help us understand the universe more. Join me as we explore What’s the Point of the James Webb Space Telescope?

Delays and Budget Overruns

Ok, I know that the obvious thing to say here is, “Well it’s a telescope, and thus it’ll help us look at space, so why wouldn’t we want it?” And yeah, that is the defining argument that we’ll be showing off a little bit later, but we need to look at this as a whole to help determine what is going on, and what isn’t. For example, the James Webb Space Telescope isn’t just a telescope, it’s actually a much more powerful observatory, one that’ll use various devices to help us scan the universe.

The problem here though is that this observatory has been getting constant delays over the years. What’s more, its BILLIONS of dollars over budget. That’s right, there was BILLIONS of dollars put into this satellite just so we could look at parts of space that we’re likely never going to reach in our lifetime. The next lifetime of the next generation, and so on and so forth. That money could’ve been used for other space projects, or used to help benefit other people in the world (which is more important now than ever given recent events like the wildfires in Australia and the earthquakes in Puerto Rico.

So we really need to ask ourselves, is this telescope and observatory really worth all the time and effort being put into it? Well, a lot of people seem to think so, which is why the project hasn’t been scrapped as of yet.

“The James Webb Space Telescope is the most ambitious and complex astronomical project ever built, and bringing it to life is a long, meticulous process. The wait will be a little longer now but the breakthrough science that it will enable is absolutely worth it,” says Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science.

Is the Telescope Worth the Time and Effort?

If it helps you feel better about the project as a whole, NASA (who is a major collaborator on the project alongside the ESA and the Canadian Space Agency) actually held a review for the project last year to see if they should scrap it given all the time and money that had been put into it with no clear ending in sight at the time.

But, after discussing the pros and cons of the device, it was made clear that the project should continue and that the James Webb Space Telescope should be finished. In fact, it was voted upon unanimously that it should be continued, that’s a lot of confidence in the device. But what makes this telescope so special?

The Webb is an unprecedented endeavour in space science, requiring utmost ingenuity in both the scientific and technical domains. Several new technologies have been developed and mastered to make its distinctive features possible, including the deployable nature of the observatory, which will carry the largest mirror ever flown into space, and the low-temperatures needed to operate its infrared instruments that will peer farther and deeper into our cosmic origins.”

So yeah, that’s a lot of cool stuff that’s attached to one place. But what is the endgame here? What does it all really mean? And why can’t we use other things like the Hubble Space Telescope or TESS to find what it is aiming to do? I talked about in this post.

Well, that all has to do with what kind of telescope/observatory this thing is. You see, the James Webb Space Telescope doesn’t operate on the same wavelengths as things like the Hubble.

” The Hubble is primarily an optical telescope, capturing wavelengths of light similar to the range that the human eye does, and extending past that a little bit into the infrared and ultraviolet (UV) portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. In essence, the Hubble is a giant orbiting space eyeball, delivering stunning pictures that you would see, if your optic nerves were similarly equipped.”

That’s why we’re able to get such great pictures, but it’s still limited in what it can see. With the James Webb Space Telescope, it works at a different wavelength entirely.

” It will be observing entirely in the infrared, barely scratching the deepest possible reds that a human can see. In other words, the JWST will be studying a universe that is largely invisible to human experience.”

So basically, the reason that we need this telescope/observatory is because without it, we will be unable to observe a large part of the universe that we can only speculate on right now with the other devices we have. Plus, since it’s in space, it’ll have a great range and less things to obstruct it from the goals of NASA, the ESA and Canada’s space agency. So yeah, it’s costing a fortune, but the potential benefits and rewards from having this thing in the sky watching the stars are numerous.

You might be thinking, “but what is it that is blocking other devices from seeing things in infrared?”, well the answer to that is light pollution. Which is not only abundant here on Earth, it’s literally the thing that restricts people from seeing things in the sky in infrared.

“Infrared light pollution comes from many different places. Basically, anything warm. Which is, basically, everything. Human bodies generate 100 watts of infrared radiation. The Earth itself is pretty warm, glowing strongly in infrared bands. Even the telescope itself, if it’s at room temperature, is aglow in the infrared.”

So you see, based on where we are right now, add in what is all around us, and more, we can’t see things in infrared from our position on Earth, so we need to send the James Webb Space Telescope to the space above the Earth so it’ll have a clear and unobstructed view to see it all.

In Depth | James Webb Space Telescope – NASA Solar System Exploration

The Space Umbrella Solution

Getting back to things, what might surprise you next about the James Webb Space Telescope is that even when it’s up in space…it’s not exactly safe from infrared. At least, not at first, after all, the Earth itself emits that kind of radiation, and the sun is already something that possesses it. So to combat this, two things will happen. First, the telescope/observatory will be placed a million miles away from Earth. And then, the device will employ a “space umbrella”. No, I’m not joking on this, it really is going to employ a space umbrella so that it’ll be in constant shade from the sun, not get any of its warmth, and thus, be able to look into the stars and parts of the universe with infrared.

How big will this umbrella need to be? And how strong does it need to be made to do these tasks you ask?

” 72 feet (22 meters) long and 36 feet (11 m) wide, made of five layers of extremely reflective material, each layer thinner than a human hair.”

This is part of the reason why the telescope has taken so long to make, because some of these items needed to be custom made in order to make it work and work like they needed it to. As we noted earlier, there had to be a lot of ground broken and advances made in order to do the James Webb Space Telescope like they wanted to.

Custom-Made Components and Mirror Design

One of the biggest problems that they had to overcome was that of the mirror that would be used in order to capture the light of infrared and be able to see it coming in all directions. Which is fine…except that the mirror can’t be exposed to anything as it’s launched into space, and you can’t just fold a 21 foot mirror and expect it to do what is required, right? So thus, they made it so that the mirror can in hexagonal sections and could be tucked and folded into the observatory so that it could be sealed until it was ready to unfold and start observing the universe at large.

Which…brings us to the next question of the telescope, “What exactly is it looking for again?” That question has already been planned out actually:

“One of its main targets will be the early universe, when the cosmos was just a few hundred million years old. The first stars and galaxies to appear on the cosmic scene blazed brightly in the visible spectrum, but over the course of the past 13 billion years the universe has expanded, stretching that light out of the visible range and down into the infrared — right in the sweet spot of the JWST‘s design parameters.”

The notions of what came first in the universe are still under debate to this day. And while we have been able to “date” certain parts of the universe, including various galaxies of which we can guess the age, we haven’t be able to fully understand what happened at the beginning of the universe itself. Imagine what we could learn if we were able to figure these things out?

There a various points in the history of our universe that we still have precious little information about. Such as the “Cosmic Dawn”, which is the point in time when many stars and galaxies were believed to have been born in the entirety sense. If we are able to get images or information about what the universe was like back then, we can use it to help map out the birth of the universe as a whole. Something that many have been trying to figure out for decades but only have loose ideas and timelines as to what happened and how it all broke down.

The Telescope’s Targets and Objectives

In fact, the Big Bang itself is still very much debated because of some of the “grey areas” in terms of what happened after the “explosion” that caused the universe to be born from it. The James Webb Space Telescope could be the tool that we use in order to figure out more about the dawn of time, when and how galaxies formed, and so much more. Which is why many people at NASA, ESA and beyond are willing to give it the chances it needs to get the job done.

But of course, beyond looking at the dawn of time itself, the James Webb Space Telescope has other missions too. Not unlike certain other telescopes and observatories, it’s going to be looking out for special stars, and even planets that can be of use to us potentially. What’s more, because of how it was built, it actually has a better chance of finding things in the current universe than other devices:

“And JWST will use a specialized device to block out light from some distant stars, enabling the observatory to snap pictures of any objects orbiting those stars — like exoplanets. Those planets will be glowing in the infrared, and the light from those planets will be modified by the chemicals and elements in their atmospheres, chemicals and elements which might be signs of life.”

Cool huh? This might just be the device that allows us to look into space and see if life is really out there. Which of course is an ongoing desire of NASA and others as a whole. Especially given recent findings on Mars and other clues as to potential Earth-like planets among the stars.

So given all of this, you might still be wondering why NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, ESA and more are spending more and more time and money on the James Webb Space Telescope when it’s clear that while it’s going to be finding potentially awesome things in space…it’s still just information. Even if it DID find things like another Earth-like planet that we could live on, what could would it do us now? And even if it DID find some new evidence or proof about how the universe was born, or how our galaxy was made and so on and so forth, would it really matter? Why spend all of this money on facts and information that’ll likely never really matter to us outside of just “filling in the blanks”?

Well that’s the thing, we WANT to fill in those blanks. Or more specifically, those who look up at the stars in wonder want to fill in the blanks. Sure, if you’re not an astronomer, a cosmologist, or someone who thinks about the universe as a whole, you might believe this to be pretty dumb. Pretty pointless. But it isn’t to them.

To these people, finding new planets, finding new stars, finding new hints about how the universe was made is EVERYTHING to them. This is their lifes work, their lifeblood if you will. They want to explain everything about the galaxy, the universe, the Big Bang, and they want to do it so that you and the next generation will be able to know more about the universe at large.

But to get these answers, we need to find them, and that’s where the James Webb Space Telescope and other devices come into play.

Plus, what if they do find an Earth-like planet and is able to determine that it has water, has good land mass, and is able to support life? That could help focus our efforts in other fields so that one say we may be able to get to that planet, even if it’s many light years away.

Not to mention, it could find something close to home that might just change how we think about the solar system we live in.

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