The past quarter-century has seen an explosion of mind-blowing advances in human knowledge of deep space, largely on the shimmering back of the Hubble Space Telescope, in low Earth orbit since 1990. Last week, in a kind of Christmas gift for the world, NASA and its international counterparts launched Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which promises to open humanity’s eyes even wider to the cosmos. It’s a welcome reminder that even in a time when too many Americans are shunning science, Earth’s brightest minds are still working diligently to expand human knowledge of our cosmic surroundings.
Hubble, orbiting just above the atmosphere, has had a role in almost every major astronomical breakthrough of the past several decades. Before Hubble, the existence of black holes – super-dense regions of such intense gravity that even light cannot escape – had been theorized but not proven. And Hubble has been crucial in helping confirm the existence of planets orbiting other stars. Not only has Hubble assisted in identifying the thousands of these exoplanets discovered in recent years, but it has been able to analyze those far-off planets’ atmospheres and other characteristics, providing the clearest indication yet that we very well might not be alone in the universe.
The James Webb Space Telescope, launched from French Guiana on Christmas Day, promises an even greater expansion of knowledge. The mirror used by the new telescope is more than 21 feet across, almost triple the size of Hubble’s, and it expands upon Hubble’s limited infrared capabilities to view a wider spectrum of phenomenon. The Webb telescope will be placed not in low Earth orbit like Hubble, but a million miles out (quadruple the distance of the moon) to provide an even clearer view of what’s out there.
A key part of its mission will be to peer at galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang, almost 14 billion years ago. Because of Webb’s unparalleled vision, it will effectively look deeper into the past than previously possible, almost to the very birth of the universe.
Hubble has been regularly serviced by astronauts over the years to fix unexpected problems. That won’t be possible with the Webb telescope because of its immense distance from Earth. Its architects and builders had to get everything right, because one malfunction could turn it into a $10 billion floating paperweight.
At this writing, as the Webb telescope rockets toward its heavenly perch, all indications are that the mission is a go. Anyone who pauses at the price tag should remember that $10 billion is about 1/200th of the almost $2 trillion added to the federal deficit by the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts for the rich. If the new telescope fulfills even a fraction of its potential, it will be a bargain for the taxpayers and a boon for human knowledge.