“Hubble on steroids!”
That is how actively involved astronomy Professor Garth Illingworth of the University of California describes the new James Webb telescope, launched on Dec. 25, 2021. On January 8, the telescope completed the unfolding of the gold-plated primary mirror along with a secondary mirror, as the spacecraft moved into permanent orbit.
The telescope is roughly the size of a tennis court, the culmination of an array of daunting conceptual and engineering challenges. Deployment involved over 50 major steps and 178 release mechanisms.
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is implementing this latest space project, in collaboration with counterpart agencies in Canada and Europe. This organization has been central to U.S. space exploration since creation in 1958, as intense competition with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War rapidly escalated.
Striking visual imagery transmitted from the Hubble Telescope, launched in 1990, “… has brought the Universe close up and personal to the average citizen. Its images have become part of our culture.” Those are the words of Edward Weiler, head of the Science Division of NASA.
Information gleaned from the Hubble has altered and refined fundamental conceptions in astronomy. Scientists have confirmed that the Universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. Galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang, which created the Universe an estimated 13.7 billion years ago.
A mission of the Webb telescope is to study galaxies and stars as they appeared relatively soon after the Big Bang. Great potential exists for further insights into the nature of matter, and perhaps dynamics that lead to the emergence of life.
The U.S. space program has evolved continuously for many decades, though in the headlines only occasionally. The most dramatic space policy announcement by far was President John F. Kennedy’s pledge in 1961, successfully fulfilled, to land a crew on the Moon within the decade - and safely return them.
James Webb, NASA head, led the mammoth moon project. Like his ally Lyndon Johnson, he was a realist who accomplished tough jobs, and to a remarkable degree furthered the public good.
In 2004, President George W. Bush committed our nation to ambitious exploration of Mars and the wider solar system. Little expressed public interest resulted. Compared to JFK’s time, we are collectively more cautious, for complex reasons.
At the same time, other nations in Asia, Europe and elsewhere are developing space programs. Canadian and European involvement with the Webb telescope reflects much broader developments.
India and Japan pursue cooperation between the Indian Space Research Organization and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. This in turn fosters fears in Beijing that the United States is somehow maneuvering behind the scenes to create a partnership designed ultimately to isolate China. The Cold War may be over, but ideological tensions linger.
In contrast to the 1960s, independent commercial space exploration initiatives are important and proliferating. The seemingly ubiquitous Elon Musk in 2002 founded SpaceX, headquartered in Hawthorne, Calif., with the goal of driving space exploration, including colonization of Mars.
There are very persuasive reasons for pursuing space exploration. First, while our space program initially reflected intense competition of the Cold War, current efforts effectively expand global cooperation. Science has always held an olive branch.
Second, space exploration fosters technology. Extreme miniaturization of components for the Moon mission furthered development of computer microchips and other high-tech devices that improve our lives.
Finally, understanding the Universe can help us understand ourselves.
Learn More: Robert Osserman, “Poetry of the Universe”