It happened – the world’s largest telescope to be in space has been delayed by another year. This refers to the James Webb Space Telescope or “JWST,” the successor to the famous Hubble Space Telescope or “HST.”
I first started working on the JWST as a Lecturer in Dublin, Ireland in 2006. The task was to test one of the four JWST instruments called the Mid InfraRed Instrument (MIRI). We worked hard to make the components “space ready” by simulating their performance in a cryogenic facility under vacuum at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in England.
No one got to go inside the vacuum, as it has no air (among other things), but we did get to run the simulations by sending software commands from a climate-controlled room adjacent to the chamber. Meanwhile, the other three instruments were tested at other cryogenic facilities in different countries.
By 2018 all instruments had been individually tested, assembled, and tested again, then moved to Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems near Los Angeles for final assembly and more testing. It is in this place where sun shields are being installed to protect the sensitive telescope instruments from piercingly bright solar exposure. These sun shields are each the size of a tennis court, and a total of five of them will need to unfurl like the sails of a grand Clipper ship.
Unlike a Clipper, there will be no crew physically present to “man the sails,” requiring instead an automated process to work flawlessly in space and on the first try. This is intense, and delays in integrating all the various components of the spacecraft are not unexpected. There is even the possibility that the mission cost will remain under its budget cap.
In the meantime, HST continues to revolutionize every field of science that it touches even though its technology is now 35 years old. When JWST is launched, which is now in 2020, it will be seven times as large as HST and enjoy the benefit of 21st century components. The science JWST will achieve boggles the mind.
JWST will be able to take direct images of planets around other planetary systems. It will be able to peer inside of the coldest regions of space to see stars as they are being born. It will also be able to see galaxies at a distance of 13.4 billion years into the past. This is important as the universe is 13.7 billion years old.
One of the impressive characteristics of the the JWST is that people from 12 different countries provided their expertise to build this monument of human achievement. Perhaps this brings us one step closer towards a better understanding of each other?