The Amazing Engineering of James Webb Telescope

If you want to see the cur­rent height of tech­nol­o­gy, you could do worse than tak­ing a look at the James Webb Space Tele­scope. Mil­lions have been doing just that over the past few weeks, giv­en that this past Christ­mas Day wit­nessed the launch of that ten-bil­lion-dol­lar NASA project a decade in the mak­ing. As the suc­ces­sor to the now-ven­er­a­ble Hub­ble Space Tele­scope, the JWST is designed to go much far­ther into out­er space and thus see much fur­ther back in time, poten­tial­ly to the for­ma­tion of the first galax­ies. If all goes well, it will give us what the Real Engi­neer­ing video above calls a glimpse of the “ear­ly uni­verse from which we and every­thing we know was born.”

But one does not sim­ply glance sky­ward to see back 13.5 bil­lion years. No, “the com­bi­na­tion of tech­nolo­gies required to make the James Webb tele­scope pos­si­ble are unique to this time peri­od in human his­to­ry.” These include the heat shield that will unfold to pro­tect its sen­si­tive com­po­nents from the heat of the sun, to the onboard cry­ocool­er that main­tains the mid-infrared detec­tion instru­ment (which itself will enable the view­ing of many more stars and galax­ies than pre­vi­ous tele­scopes) at a cool sev­en degrees Kelvin, to the array of gold-coat­ed beryl­li­um mir­rors that can pick up unprece­dent­ed amounts of light.

How­ev­er com­pli­cat­ed the JWST’s devel­op­ment and launch, “the tru­ly nerve-wrack­ing process begins on day sev­en,” says the Real Engi­neer­ing video’s nar­ra­tor. At that point, with the satel­lite find­ing its pre­cise­ly deter­mined posi­tion 1.5 mil­lion kilo­me­ters from Earth, the heat shield begins unfold­ing, and “there are over 300 sin­gle points of fail­ure in this unfold­ing sequence: 300 chances for a ten bil­lion-dol­lar, 25-year project to end.” With that process under­way as of this writ­ing, the teeth of the pro­jec­t’s engi­neers are no doubt firm­ly embed­ded in their nails.

As it plays out, also-ner­vous fans of space explo­ration (who’ve had much to get excit­ed about in recent years) might con­sid­er dis­tract­ing them­selves with the above episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk. In it Tyson has in-depth dis­cus­sions about the JWST’s con­cep­tion, pur­pose, and poten­tial with both NASA astronomer Natal­ie Batal­ha and film­mak­er Nathaniel Kahn, whose doc­u­men­tary The Hunt for Plan­et B exam­ines the JWST team’s “quest to find anoth­er Earth among the stars.” But let’s not get ahead of our­selves: even if the shield deploys with­out a hitch, there remains the not-untricky process of unfold­ing those mir­rors. What we see through the tele­scope will no doubt change our ideas about human­i­ty’s place in the uni­verse — but if it func­tions as planned, we’ll have good rea­son to be pleased with human com­pe­tence.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Beau­ty of Space Pho­tog­ra­phy

Free Inter­ac­tive e‑Books from NASA Reveal His­to­ry, Dis­cov­er­ies of the Hub­ble & Webb Tele­scopes

How Sci­en­tists Col­orize Those Beau­ti­ful Space Pho­tos Tak­en By the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope

Van Gogh’s ‘Star­ry Night’ Re-Cre­at­ed by Astronomer with 100 Hub­ble Space Tele­scope Images

NASA Enlists Andy Warhol, Annie Lei­bovitz, Nor­man Rock­well & 350 Oth­er Artists to Visu­al­ly Doc­u­ment America’s Space Pro­gram

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • JanetA.Hobson says:

    I have always been a star gaz­er ever since I was 6 yrs old. And I have nev­er stop. One night I had just got off work on a night shift from the Hos­pi­tal. And I looked up to the stars. And I saw a gold­en craft mov­ing over the sky. I just watched as it just flew off!! I have seen so meany things in the sky. I think that I always will. Janet Hob­son 😏Fort Worth TX.

  • jamesmary says:

    The James Webb Space Tele­scope (JWST) is one of the most ambi­tious engi­neer­ing projects of our time, designed to be the suc­ces­sor to the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope. Here are some amaz­ing engi­neer­ing feats of the JWST:

    Largest tele­scope mir­ror: The JWST has a pri­ma­ry mir­ror that is 6.5 meters (21 feet) in diam­e­ter, mak­ing it the largest mir­ror ever put into space. This size allows for a greater light-gath­er­ing capa­bil­i­ty, enabling the JWST to observe fainter and more dis­tant objects than the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope.

    Sun­shield: The JWST has a five-lay­er sun­shield made of a spe­cial­ized mate­r­i­al that blocks the heat and light from the sun, keep­ing the tele­scope’s instru­ments and optics cool. The sun­shield is about the size of a ten­nis court and is designed to unfurl in space.

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