I’ll ask you to indulge me for this Tuesday’s post, as I subject you to me getting excited about one of my Christmas gifts this year: the James Webb Space Telescope launch. This has been decades in the making, and I have been watching the observatory be delayed again, and again, and again for years now, so it was remarkable when it finally launched, and I mean remarkable in the sense of I needed to check a couple of sources to confirm that it had actually lifted off and made it to space. NASA put together a neat webpage that shows you Webb’s current status.
One of the rules of thumb that I was taught when I was in school for astronautical engineering was that you should design spacecraft to have as few moving parts as possible. Reducing complexity is key, because every added component, every moving part, every piece of equipment and line of code, is a potential failure point. And when something fails on a spacecraft, there’s no way to go up and fix it; we’re left with figuring out patches and workarounds (which can be fun, but is never as effective). The notable exception, of course, is Hubble, which tried to die several times in 2021, but is still hanging on, and was famously serviced by astronauts on the space shuttle.
The JWST breaks that rule of thumb. It is a massive, incredibly complicated undertaking, and unlike Hubble, it will be too far from Earth to be serviced even if we still had the space shuttle. Just fitting it in the payload faring required that the observatory be folded like the most expensive piece of origami in history. It is even now unfolding, deploying its magnificent sunshield, and eventually its mirrors (it may have finished by the time this post goes live, depending on the timing). These mirrors will allow the space telescope to capture faint infrared light signals that originated almost thirteen billion years ago.
All of these complexities are happening as the spacecraft is hurtling away from Earth to a place called L2. L2, meaning Lagrange point 2, is a point of gravitational equilibrium that the JWST will orbit with minimal required station-keeping, helping to prolong its life, improve its pointing stability, and enable its science mission. The mission planners expect that the JWST will be ready to begin conducting scientific observations by mid-2022.
There’s so much to know and discuss about this mission, and I have just barely scratched the surface here, but I would be more than happy to engage with you in the comments to discuss Hubble’s successor in more detail. This is the kind of project that constitutes an entire career (or more) for many of those who worked on it, and it is a project like this that I would love to work on one day: a deep space science mission to push the frontiers of human knowledge and the edges of our technological capabilities. The JWST is a truly remarkable piece of technology, and I hope that you’ll indulge me in learning about this accomplishment.