Do you want a telescope to photograph a meteor, a dinosaur, a constellation?
For Earthlings, these requests are seldom granted. But for someone out in space, there are unlimited quantities of such heavy responsibilities. On a larger scale, while the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is heavily involved in astronomical pursuits, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration also hosts much more diverse astrophysics programs, which begin in space but can have a huge impact on our understanding of our terrestrial world.
One of the more relevant programs to Earthlings — and astronomers particularly — is a newly arrived telescope, called the James Webb Space Telescope, which NASA had long been building. The telescope was named after the second administrator of NASA (the space program’s first administrator, James Webb, was an American), and will be the most expensive telescope ever made when it launches in 2022, at a cost of $8.8 billion.
During my visit to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland on Friday, I saw the laboratory that will actually be home to Webb when it is finally launched into space. It is one of the facilities at Goddard that is responsible for preparing the telescope for launch, and it is made up of environments that simulate the asteroid-like environments in which Webb’s instruments are expected to operate — and place them inside the exact conditions they are to simulate.
The most important of those conditions is the vacuum of space. According to the space agency, when radiation heats the telescope, it expands outwards and sinks inward. These qualities result in dusty atmospheres that behave like a gigantic husk, and are important for a telescope to observe distant planets and even stars in terms of its own evolution. Webb is hoped to be able to take images of these planets, and potentially even new life on them.
“Webs and the Hubble and other greats that have been out there over the past 30 years have sort of discovered the catalog of what a planet looks like and what planets are out there,” said Professor Keith Cowing, a science writer who is an expert on the history of astronomy. He also spoke of the “surprise” that life still may exist out there on the faces of the people back on Earth, despite the worst predictions from scientists about the fate of alien life.
“It’s still possible,” he said.