Why Every Update From The James Webb Space Telescope Should Blow Our Minds
When the James Webb Space Telescope launched on Christmas Day in 2021, astronomers and science enthusiasts across the globe held their breath in hopeful anticipation. This telescope was unlike anything we’d ever launched before, and while there were still countless hurdles it needed to clear before becoming fully operational, if successful, it would have a massive impact on our understanding of the universe.
To the average, non-science-minded citizen? It probably didn’t get a second thought, other than maybe, “cool.”
However, when you factor in all it took to get this magnificent feat of engineering we call the James Webb Space Telescope (or JWST) into space, even those wholly uninterested in space or its myriad of mysteries can find themselves impressed.
Here are a few reasons why every update from the James Webb Space Telescope should blow our minds.
To demonstrate the impressiveness of JWST’s location, first, consider the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble travels over our heads each day at around 332 miles above Earth’s atmosphere. This is considered Low Earth Orbit, which is also where you’ll find the International Space Station and a majority of the satellites orbiting Earth. This means that while it’s difficult to get to if you don’t own your own space agency, it’s not impossible.
JWST, on the other hand, is a whopping one million miles away from Earth. That’s a cool 999,668 miles farther than Hubble. So if something malfunctions, sending a repairperson out there is going to take a while — in fact, there are currently no known plans for repair missions. There have been five missions to Hubble, on which astronauts replaced parts, made updates, and performed repairs. Sending such a mission out to JWST? I don’t like the word “impossible,” but it’s darn close.
Sending something so massive so far away takes some serious guts, but more importantly, it requires incredibly smart people doing unfathomable calculations to ensure success. And lucky for us, they nailed it.
The concept of orbit may seem pretty basic. We orbit the Sun, our Moon orbits the Earth, we are very familiar with these ideas. So, how can something orbit… nothing? Well, that’s precisely what JWST is doing. Technically, it’s orbiting a place called the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point.
It would take an entire semester to adequately explain how Lagrange points work, but the general idea is this: it’s a point between two objects (in this case, the Sun and the Earth) where the gravitational pull of each object is equal to the force needed for an object to just… hang out there. This allows JWST to orbit the Sun while staying in line with the Earth, rather than going off on its own orbital path.
I know, it sounds like something straight out of science fiction, but Lagrange points are very real and very cool. If you want to know more about JWST’s new home, check out this YouTube video.
The Hurdles To Get There
When JWST successfully left the terra firma of Earth, it was just the first step of many. The massive telescope was compacted into a space launch vehicle called an Ariane 5. This vehicle is then, pardon the inelegance, strapped to a rocket and launched into space.
At 31 minutes post-launch, JWST began to deploy its components, namely the sun shield and mirrors, so it began to resemble the telescope we know and love today. Deployments were commanded from Earth over the course of 14 days and had to be monitored closely to account for any unexpected issues. By all accounts, everything went as expected and all components were successfully and fully deployed by January 8, 2022… which, poetically, would have been Stephen Hawking’s 80th birthday.
Throughout this deployment stage, JWST’s ground teams were performing mid-course corrections to ensure it was heading the right way. These corrections are pretty crucial when you’re sending something a million miles away. On January 24th, after almost a month in space, JWST was given one final boost, and was officially on its way to its new Lagrange point home.
Once JWST was safely en route, the engineers on the ground were tasked with aligning and positioning the telescope’s mirrors — and had to do so with microscopic accuracy. The panel of mirrors on JWST acts as one giant mirror, so if any are misaligned, the images wouldn’t come back as hoped. Consider this analogy from NASA:
To work together as a single mirror, the telescope’s 18 primary mirror segments need to match each other to a fraction of a wavelength of light — approximately 50 nanometers. To put this in perspective, if the Webb primary mirror were the size of the United States, each segment would be the size of Texas, and the team would need to line the height of those Texas-sized segments up with each other to an accuracy of about 1.5 inches.
Pretty intense, right?
Consider the time and planning it took to simply dream up JWST. Then consider the tens of thousands of brilliant minds who dedicated their careers over two decades to bringing it to life. Then consider the countless variables and hurdles that just had to go right, and did.
All so that we could receive priceless gifts like this one.
The fact that we humans are capable of such precise and magnificent engineering is enough to boggle the mind. So every time we receive a new, breathtaking image from this spectacular telescope, I encourage you to sit back in awe for just a moment.
These pictures may seem like the result of miracles, but they’re the result of something better: science.