James Webb space telescope launch makes astronomers very anxious

What do astronomers eat for breakfast the day their $ 10 billion telescope is launched into space? Their fingernails.

“You work for years and it all goes up in a cloud of smoke,” said Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona.

Dr Rieke admits she’ll cross her fingers on the morning of December 24 when she tunes in for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. For 20 years, she has worked on the design and construction of an ultra-sensitive infrared camera that will live aboard the spacecraft. The Webb is the vaunted larger and more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomers expect it to pierce a dark curtain of ignorance and guesswork about the universe’s early days, and allow them to spy on nearby exoplanets.

After $ 10 billion and years of delay, the telescope is finally set to take off from a European launch site in French Guiana en route to a point a million kilometers across the moon. (Late Tuesday, NASA delayed the launch for at least two days).

An informal and totally unscientific survey of randomly selected astronomers found that a community sitting on the edges of their seats felt nervous, proud and grateful for the team that developed, built and tested the new telescope during of the last quarter of a century.

“I’m almost certainly going to watch the launch and be terrified the entire time,” said Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, professor of physics and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire.

And there is cause for concern. The Ariane 5 rocket that carries the spacecraft has rarely failed to deliver its payloads into orbit. But even if it survives launch, the telescope will have a long way to go.

Over the next month, he will have to perform a series of maneuvers with 344 “single points of failure” in order to deploy his large golden mirror and deploy five thin layers of a giant plastic sunscreen that will keep the telescope and its instruments cold. . and dark. Engineers and astronomers call this interval six months of high anxiety because there is no prospect of human or robotic intervention or rescue if something goes wrong.

But if all of these steps are successful, what astronomers see through this telescope could change everything. They hope to spot the first stars and galaxies emerging from the primordial fog when the universe was only around 100 million years old, in short the first big bang steps towards the comfortable light show we inhabit today.

“The entire astronomical community, given the wide array of expected scientific feedback and potential for discovery, has its skin in the game” with the telescope, said Priyamvada Natarajan, astrophysicist at Yale. “We are all invested intellectually and emotionally. “

But the telescope has been bitten by a snake during its long development with cost overruns and costly accidents that have added to the normal apprehension of rocket launches.

Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the Kavli Foundation in Los Angeles and former president of the American Physical Society, described the combination of “excitement and dread” he expected to feel at the launch.

“The next decade of astronomy and astrophysics is built on the success of JW,” said Dr. Turner, referring to the James Webb Space Telescope, “and the prestige and leadership of the United States in space and science is also at stake. It’s a heavy burden to bear, but we know how to do great things.

This opinion was echoed by Martin Rees of the University of Cambridge and the Astronomer Royal for British royal houses.

“Any failure of JWST would be disastrous for NASA,” he wrote in an email. “But if failure involves a mechanical procedure – rolling out a blind or unfolding the pieces of the mirror – it will be a mega-catastrophic and embarrassing PR disaster. That’s because it would imply the failure of something apparently.” simple ”that everyone can understand.

Dr Natarajan, who will use the Webb to research the origins of supermassive black holes, said: “I try to be Zen and not imagine disastrous results.”

But in describing the issues, she compared the telescope to other landmarks in human history.

“The remarkable enduring achievements of the human hand and spirit, whether it be the temples of Mahabalipuram, the pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall or the Sistine Chapel have all taken time and expense,” she said. declared. “I really see JWST as one of those landmarks of our time.”

Alan Dressler of Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, who chaired a committee 25 years ago that led to Project Webb, responded with his own question when asked how nervous he was.

“When you know someone is about to have critical surgery, would you just sit there and discuss’ what if that fails? “” He wrote. He added that his colleagues “know there is no certainty here, and there is no point in any of us ruminating about it.”

Another astronomer who has been involved with this project from the start, Garth Illingworth of the University of California at Santa Cruz, said in an email that he was optimistic about the launch despite his reputation as a guy. the glass is half empty “. .

“Deployments are complex, but my point of view is that everything humanly possible has been done! he wrote. He said that while there had been some surprises in the telescope’s deployment, he “didn’t expect them to be major or at the end of the mission – not at all.”

Other respondents to my survey also took refuge in their nervousness about the skills and dedication of their colleagues.

Andrea Ghez of the University of California, Los Angeles, who won the Nobel Prize in 2020 for her observations of the black hole at the center of our galaxy, said she remains sane “believing that really smart people have worked really hard to get things right.

This idea was supported by Tod Lauer, an astronomer at NOIRLab in Tucson, Ariz., Who was in the thick of it when the Hubble Space Telescope was launched and turned out to have a misshapen mirror, which required repair visits by astronauts on the now-retired space shuttles. He said his feelings about the upcoming launch were only with the engineers and technicians who built the Webb Telescope.

“You very quickly respect the team nature of doing anything in space, and your reliance on scientists and engineers you might never even know to get it right,” did he declare. “No one wants this to fail, and I haven’t met anyone in this field who hasn’t taken their part seriously.”

He added that astronomers need to trust their colleagues in rocket and spacecraft engineering to get it right.

“Anyone who knows how to pilot a $ 10 billion spacecraft on a precision trajectory will not be impressed by an astronomer, who has never taken an engineering class in his life, curled up behind his laptop in looking at the launch, ”Dr. Lauer said. “You feel awe and empathy for these people and try to act worthy of the incredible gift they bring to the world.”

And if something goes wrong, some astronomers have said they’ll keep in perspective that only hardware, not people, is at stake.

“If something bad happened, I would be heartbroken,” said Dr Prescod-Weinstein. “I’m glad that at least human lives are not at stake.”

There was also a lot to be expected if everything worked as expected, said Dr Rieke, who worked on the telescope’s infrared imaging device.

“When the camera turns on we’ll have another party,” she said.


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