Hubble’s Successor

Nov 22, 2016

Telescope That ‘Ate Astronomy’ Is on Track to Surpass Hubble
Credit – Dennis Overbye @ NYT

The next great space telescope spread its golden wings this
Like the petals of a 20­foot sunflower seeking the light, the 18 hexagonal
mirrors that make up the heart of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope were faced
toward a glassed­in balcony overlooking a cavernous clean room at the Goddard
Space Flight Center here.
Inside the room, reporters and a gaggle of space agency officials, including the
ebullient administrator Charles Bolden, were getting their pictures taken in front of
the giant mirror.
Now, after 20 years with a budget of $8.7 billion, the Webb telescope is on track
and on budget to be launched in October 2018 and sent a million miles from Earth,
NASA says.
The telescope, named after NASA Administrator James Webb, who led the
space agency in the 1960s, is the long­awaited successor of the Hubble Space
Seven times larger than the Hubble in light­gathering ability, the Webb was
designed to see farther out in space and deeper into the past of the universe. It may
solve mysteries about how and when the first stars and galaxies emerged some 13
billion years ago in the smoky aftermath of the Big Bang.
Equipped with the sort of infrared goggles that give troops and police officers
night vision, the Webb would peer into the dust clouds and gas storms of the Milky
Way in which stars and planets are presently being birthed. It would be able to study
planets around other stars.
That has been NASA’s dream since 1996 when the idea for the telescope was
conceived with a projected price tag then of $500 million But as recently as six years
ago, the James Webb Space Telescope was, in the words of Nature magazine, “the
telescope that ate astronomy,” mismanaged, over budget and behind schedule so
that it had crushed everything else out of NASA’s science budget.
A House subcommittee once voted to cancel it. Instead, the program was
rebooted with a strict spending cap.
The scientific capabilities of the telescope emerged unscathed from that period,
astronomers on the project say. The major change, said Jonathan P. Gardner, the
deputy senior project scientist, was to simplify the testing of the telescope.
Most of the pain was dealt to other NASA projects like a proposed space
telescope to study dark energy, which the National Academy of Sciences had hoped
to put on a fast track to be launched this decade. It’s now delayed until 2025 or so.
Typically for NASA, the Webb telescope was a technologically ambitious project,
requiring 10 new technologies to make it work. Bill Ochs, a veteran Goddard
engineer who became project manager in 2010 during what he calls the “replan,”
said the key to its success so far, was having enough money in the budget to provide
a cushion for nasty surprises.
The telescope smiling up at us like a giant Tiffany shaving mirror is 6.5 meters
in diameter, or just over 21 feet, compared with 2.4 meters for the Hubble. The aim
is to explore a realm of cosmic history about 150 million to one billion years after
time began — known as the reionization epoch, when bright and violent new stars
and the searing radiation from quasars were burning away a gloomy fog of hydrogen
gas that prevailed at the end of the Big Bang.

In fact, astronomers don’t know how the spectacle that greets our eyes every
night when the sun goes down or the lights go out wrenched itself into luminous
existence. They theorize that an initial generation of stars made purely of hydrogen
and helium — the elements created during the Big Bang — burned ferociously and
exploded apocalyptically, jump­starting the seeding of the cosmos with progressively
more diverse materials. But nobody has ever seen any so­called Population 3 stars,
as those first stars are known. They don’t exist in the modern universe. Astronomers
have to hunt them in the dim past.
That ambition requires the Webb to be tuned to a different kind of light than
our eyes or the Hubble can see. Because the expansion of the cosmos is rushing
those earliest stars and galaxies away from us so fast, their light is “red­shifted” to
longer wavelengths the way the siren from an ambulance shifts to a lower register as
it passes by.
So blue light from an infant galaxy bursting with bright spanking new stars way
back then has been stretched to invisible infrared wavelengths, or heat radiation, by
the time it reaches us 13 billion years later.
As a result, the Webb telescope will produce cosmic postcards in colors no eye
has ever seen. It also turns out that infrared emanations are the best way to study
exoplanets, the worlds beyond our own solar system that have been discovered in the
thousands since the Webb telescope was first conceived.
In order to see those infrared colors, however, the telescope has to be very cold
— less than 45 degrees Fahrenheit above absolute zero — so that its own heat does
not swamp the heat from outer space. Once in space, the telescope will unfold a giant
umbrella the size of a tennis court to keep the sun off it. The telescope, marooned in
permanent shade a million miles beyond the moon, will experience an infinite cold
The sunshield consists of five thin, kite­shaped layers of a material called
Kapton. Way too big to fit into a rocket, the shield, as well as the telescope mirror,
will have be launched folded up. It will then be unfolded in space in a series of some
180 maneuvers that look in computer animations like a cross between a parachute
opening and a swimming pool cover going into place.
Or at least that is the $8 billion plan.
Engineers have done it on the ground, and it worked. The same people who
refolded the shield after each test will fold it again, in a process Mr. Ochs compares
to packing up your parachute before a jump. The test will come in space, where no
one will be able to help if things go wrong.
That whole process will amount to what Mr. Ochs called “six months of high
“For the most part, it all has to work,” Mr. Ochs said.
The last time NASA did something this big astronomically, in 1990, things
didn’t quite work. Once in orbit, the Hubble couldn’t be focused; it had a misshapen
mirror that had never been properly tested. Astronauts eventually fitted it with
corrective lenses, and it went on to become the crown jewel of astronomy.
Making sure that doesn’t happen this time is the agenda for the next two years.
“Our telescope is finished,” John C. Mather, the senior project scientist, said. “Now
we are about to prove it works.”
In the coming weeks, the mirror and the box of scientific instruments on its
back will be put on a rig and shaken to simulate the vibrations of a launch, and then
sealed in an acoustic chamber and bombarded with the noise of a launch.
If the parts survive unscathed, the telescope assembly will be shipped to a giant
vacuum chamber at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. There it will be chilled to
the deep­space temperatures at which it will have to work, and engineers will
actually focus the telescope, twiddling the controls for seven actuators on each of the
18 mirror segments. No Hubble surprises here.
Then the telescope will go to Los Angeles to be mounted on its gigantic
sunshield. That whole contraption, now too big for even the giant C­5A military
transport plane, will travel by ship through the Panama Canal to French Guiana.
It will be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket supplied by the European Space
Agency as part of Europe’s contribution to the observatory, and go into orbit around
the sun at a point called L2 about a million miles from Earth. Canada, NASA’s other
partner, supplied some of the instruments.
Then come the six months of anxiety. Sometime in the spring of 2019, if all goes
well, the telescope will record its first real image — of what, the assembled
astronomers were not ready to guess. In a bonus undreamed of when the Webb
telescope was first conceived, it looks as if the Hubble will still be going strong when
the Webb is launched. They will share the sky and the potential for joint observing
projects. A million miles apart, they can view objects in the solar system from
different angles, providing a kind of stereoscopic perspective.
Besides the expected baby galaxies and the exoplanets, there are, as
astronomers like to remind us, always new surprises (like colliding black holes when
the LIGO observatory was turned on last year) when humanity devises a new way to
look at the sky.
Asked what the telescope’s greatest discovery would be, Dr. Mather said, “If I
knew, I would tell you.”
Nor would the project members talk about contingency plans to rescue the
telescope if anything goes wrong a million miles from Earth. There are no plans to
fix it or bring it back. They know how to attach a probe or robot to the telescope, Dr.
Mather said, but “we are planning to not need it, thank you.”

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