On April 24, 1990, astronomy changed for good when the Space Shuttle Discovery rocketed into space, carrying aboard it the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble allowed us to look deep into space to see galaxies, not as we perceive them today, but as they were when the light we are perceiving escaped them—sometimes millions, sometimes billions of years ago. You can think of that light like a postcard traveling through the mail for a very, very long time. When it reaches us, it has a story to tell. Eventually, when Hubble’s peering eye reached the outer edge of its limit, the light it was perceiving turned black.
Twenty-eight years after sending Hubble into space, NASA is getting ready to launch its number one science priority—The James Webb Space Telescope. Future generations may look back at October 2018 as one of the most monumental moments in human history—a crowning achievement of discovery, technology, ingenuity, and cooperation. The Webb Space Telescope is the result of thousands of people’s efforts across the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has taken more than twenty years to build.
Webb’s revolutionary design and capabilities are about to unleash a new dawn of human discovery, but it has not been without challenges. Before the dream could even be realized, ten technologies that did not previously exist had to be created and perfected. Countless other considerations had to be thought through and developed as well, such as assembly structures, test facilities, transportation enclosures, the launch site, and engineering copies called Pathfinders, among other things. It must also be able to operate in -400 degrees Fahrenheit, while enduring the extremes of space and the violence of launch.
Where the Hubble’s ocular reach ended, the Webb Space Telescope will be able to see far beyond, in fact, it’s designed to see stars and galaxies as they were first forming—more than 13.5 billion years ago. This is truly remarkable to think about, considering the universe is estimated to be around 13.7 billion years old. (What was before the birth of the universe?)
To give you an idea of its presence, Webb’s total mirror size is 7.5 times larger than Hubble, creating a reflective surface almost two stories tall. Its heat shield alone, which will protect it from unwanted emissions from the sun, earth, and moon, is the size of a tennis court. But how will we get something so large into space? Clearly something with these dimensions can’t fit into the nose of a rocket. The answer is origami. Once it reaches space, it will unfold like a transformer toy and continue its self-powered journey to its operating post one million miles from Earth—that’s four times further than the moon. Unlike the Hubble, which has often been maintained over the years by manned space missions, we’ve got one shot with Webb. If it malfunctions, there’s an $8 billion piece of space junk floating through the void.
Some people might argue we could do a lot better things like cure diseases and fight poverty with $8 billion dollars. So, what do we get for this expensive, herculean effort? For one, we can see past all the galaxies in the Hubble Deep Field photo, perhaps the most famous picture Hubble ever took. Images in this photo show us faint galaxies, which give us ‘fossil’ clues as to how the Universe looked in the remote past, as well as how it may have evolved with time. We will be able to see far past that to see newly formed galaxies and stars, and look backwards through time to see the formations of the most distant, earliest galaxies of the universe, ones that formed right after the Big Bang—objects we call the universe’s first light. If Hubble has been able to see the adult, teenage, and child galaxies of the universe, Webb will be able to observe toddlers and infants. This will be like adding missing photos in the universe’s family album, the ones that show how the universe has grown over time.
As the universe expands, light traveling through it gets stretched, so what starts out as visible light and ultra-violet light (the two types of light the earliest objects in the universe emitted most strongly) is changed and stretched into another wave length called infrared light. One of the Webb Space Telescope’s most exciting features is that it can see infrared light. Infrared light, a slower wave length than visible light, is viewable to the human eye under certain conditions, although we perceive it as heat. Therefore, if we want to see the earliest objects in the universe, we have to see that faint, infrared glow. This will allow us to see planets orbiting stars in our galaxy, as well as determine their chemical composition. We’ll also be able to look inside nebulas, which are made of gas and dust, to see new stars forming—as well as the planets forming around them. This is not currently possible because the dust and gas blocks the visible light. We know solar systems and planets are forming inside those dust rings, so this may help us understand how our own planet was formed.
In a nut shell, we are at a new dawn of discovery, and this extremely versatile space telescope will help us not only answer burning questions we have now, but also questions we have not yet thought to ask. What we could potentially uncover has the potential to shift our entire understanding of who we are and our place in the universe, dwarfing the Copernican Revolution or Columbus’s discovery that the Earth was round. There are literally billions of stars, with billions of planets rotating around them, that are billions of years old, so we’re also bound to discover that we’re not alone in the universe.
It was first thought that civilization began 3,200 years ago, but recent discoveries have found that to be false. One discovery in a South African cave in 2011 found the oldest known bedding—sleeping mats made of mosquito-repellant evergreens that are about 77,000 years old. In terms of space and time, that’s not even an infant—it’s barely a zygote. Now imagine a civilization that has been evolving for 500,000 years, or 5,000,000 years. Clearly, they would have had to evolve beyond warring to become one, after all, the latest science tells us that from the cellular level, to the level of species, to the societal level, Darwin was wrong; it’s not about survival of the fittest—it’s about cooperation of the community.
The point is, we just don’t know, but it is our innate curiosity about our origins that continues to push mankind both outward and inward in search of purpose and meaning. What we’re bound to discover is what we already know; we are made of stardust, we are one, and it is only through love that we will find our way back to unity, oneness, and wholeness.
The Webb Telescope is truly an international effort. Imagine if we made a global effort in the name of brotherly and sisterly cooperation to connect countries and communities. I hope the idea will vanish in my lifetime that human beings are the only advanced form of intelligence in the universe. Similar to the notion more than four hundred years ago that the world was flat, I love the freedom that exists on the other side of limited beliefs.