What are astronomers eating for breakfast the day their $10 billion telescope launches? your fingernails.
“You work for years and everything goes up in smoke,” said Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona.
Rieke admits she’ll be crossing her fingers on the morning of December 24 when she turns on the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. For 20 years, she has worked to design and build a highly sensitive infrared camera that will live on board the spacecraft. The Webb is the heralded larger and more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomers expect it will pierce a dark curtain of ignorance and guesswork about the beginnings of the universe and allow them to sniff out nearby exoplanets.
After $10 billion and years of delay, the telescope is finally set to lift off from a European launch site in French Guiana and make its way to a point 1 million miles away on the far side of the moon.
An informal and utterly unscientific poll of randomly selected astronomers found one community nervous, proud and grateful for the team that has been designing, building and testing the new telescope over the past quarter century.
“I’m almost certainly going to watch the launch and be scared the entire time,” said Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a professor of physics and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire.
And there’s a lot to worry about. The Ariane 5 rocket carrying the spacecraft has rarely failed to deliver its payloads into orbit. But even if it survives the launch, the telescope will still have a long way to go.
Over the following month, it must perform a series of 344 “single points of failure” maneuvers to deploy its large golden mirror and deploy five thin layers of a giant plastic sunshade that keeps the telescope and its instruments inside cold and dark. Engineers and astronomers call this interval six months of high fear because there is no prospect of human or robotic intervention or rescue should anything go wrong.
But if all of those steps are successful, what astronomers see through this telescope could change everything. They hope to see the first stars and galaxies to emerge from the primordial nebula when the Universe was only about 100 million years old – in short, the first steps out of the Big Bang towards the cozy light show we live in today.
“The entire astronomy community has a role to play given the wide range of expected scientific returns and discovery potential with the telescope,” said Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale. “We’re all invested intellectually and emotionally.”
But the telescope has been bogged down in its long development by cost overruns and costly accidents that have added to the normal fear 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 horror” he expected during the launch.
“The next decade of astronomy and astrophysics will require the success of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Turner said, referring to the James Webb Space Telescope, “and US prestige and leadership in space and science is also at stake. It’s a heavy burden, but we know how to do great things.”
This opinion was shared by Cambridge University’s Martin Rees and the Astronomer Royal for British Royalty.
“Any JWST failure would be catastrophic for NASA,” he wrote in an email. “But if the failure involves a mechanical procedure — rolling up a blind or unfolding the parts of the mirror — it’s going to be a mega-catastrophic and embarrassing PR disaster. That’s because something seemingly ‘simple’ that anyone can understand would fail.”
Natarajan, who will use the Webb to search for the origins of supermassive black holes, said, “I’m trying to be zen and not imagine catastrophic results.”
But in describing the mission, she compared the telescope to other milestones in human history.
“Remarkable enduring achievements of the human hand and mind, whether it be the Temples of Mahabalipuram, the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall or the Sistine Chapel, have all taken time and money,” she said. “I really see JWST as such a monument of our time.”
Alan Dressler of Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, who 25 years ago chaired a committee that led to the Webb Project, responded with his own question when asked how nervous he was.
“If you knew someone was about to have critical surgery, would you sit around and have a conversation of, ‘what if it fails?'” he wrote. He added that his colleagues “know there’s no certainty here, and it doesn’t do any of us any good to think about it.”
Another astronomer who was involved with the project from the start, Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in an email that despite his reputation for being a “glass is half empty” guy, be optimistic about the start .
“The operations are complex, but in my opinion everything humanly possible has been done!” he wrote. He said that even if there were surprises in the use of the telescope, he “didn’t expect them to be either larger or mission-terminating — not at all.”
Other respondents to my survey also took refuge from their nervousness in the competence and dedication of their colleagues.
Andrea Ghez of the University of California, Los Angeles, who received the 2020 Nobel Prize for her observations of the black hole at the center of our galaxy, said she kept her sanity “by trusting that really smart people were working really hard on it have to get it to get things right.”
This notion was supported by Tod Lauer, an astronomer at NOIRLab in Tucson, Arizona, who was in the thick of things when the Hubble Space Telescope was launched and discovered a deformed mirror, necessitating astronaut repair visits to the now-retired space shuttles. He said his feelings about the upcoming launch are just the engineers and technicians who built the Webb telescope.
“You very quickly come to respect the team nature of doing everything in space and your reliance on scientists and engineers who you might not even know are doing everything right,” he said. “Nobody wants it to fail, and I’ve never met anyone who didn’t take their role seriously.”
He added that astronomers would need to trust their peers in rocket and spacecraft engineering to get it right.
“Someone who knows how to fly a $10 billion spacecraft on a precise trajectory will not be impressed by an astronomer who has never taken an engineering course in his life and is crouched behind his laptop for launch watch,” Lauer said. “You have admiration and empathy for these people and you try to act worthy of the incredible gift they bring to the world.”
And if anything goes wrong, some astronomers said they’ll keep in mind that only hardware, not people, are at stake.
“If something bad happens, my heart will be broken,” Prescod-Weinstein said. “I’m glad that at least no lives are at stake.”
There’s also a lot to look forward to if everything works as designed, said Rieke, who worked on the telescope’s infrared imaging device.
“When the cameras come on, we’ll have another party,” she said.
c.2021 The New York Times Company Dennis Overbye
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