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.
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.