Dec. 11, 2021 photo released by the European Space Agency, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is secured on top of the Ariane 5 rocket that will launch it to space from Europe's Spaceport.
( European Space Agency
Matt Katz: We all know that you shouldn't count your chickens before they hatch. You should also not count your enormous, super-powerful seven-ton 10 billion dollar telescopes before they're launched and unfurled into space. The James Webb Space Telescope, an observatory that will allow us to look deeper into space and further back in time than we ever have, is supposed to launch on December 24th. The date was pushed back from the original launch date of December 22nd, which actually was supposed to launch way back in 2007, but there have been numerous setbacks over the last 14 years that have all of us at the edge of our seats wondering if this telescope is ever going to leave the ground.
Others might be wondering why are we even bothering to spend all of that money on a big, old mirror in space when we should be reflecting on all of the unresolved issues right here on planet earth. Here to talk to us about the final frontier and why space exploration matters is freelance science journalist, Shannon Stirone. She's written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and everywhere else around the galaxy. Hi there, Shannon. Welcome.
Shannon Stirone: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Matt: Tell us why the James Webb Space Telescope launch is such a big deal.
Shannon: The JWST-
Shannon: -for short, yes.
Matt: Got it. I'll say that now.
Shannon: NASA love their acronyms.
It is the biggest, most powerful telescope we've built and hopefully will send to space. It's going to be able to look at the universe the way we've never seen before, and that's using infrared light. It's going to give us views into the earliest galaxies, 13 billion years old. It's essentially like having invisible goggles. It'll allow us to see what we can't see.
Matt: Wow. Can you explain more about why we can see older galaxies using this? Can you explain what that means?
Shannon: Yes. Hubble, which we know has given us incredible scientific discoveries, some of the most beautiful pictures you could ever imagine sees in visible light and in ultraviolet light, but the JWST Telescope sees in infrared, which means that it can see through matter. The one way to think about it is as our universe ages and expands, that light from the oldest galaxies gets really stretched out, and infrared light stretches. It's one of the longest wavelengths, so JWST can see in that wavelength. It'll essentially allow us to see through matter. What Hubble would be able to see, look at this gorgeous planet, look at this gorgeous galaxy, JWST will be able to see through all of that matter to things that we've not literally ever been able to see before.
Matt: That's nuts. That's so exciting. Of course, this thing has to get into space. Can you explain what the deal is with the mirror?
Shannon: Yes, the mirror. God, it makes me nervous and raises my blood pressure just thinking about it. This behemoth of a telescope, its mirror is enormous and because it's really difficult to launch such a huge telescope off of earth, we have to put it inside of the top of a rocket fairing, which means it has to get smushed and condensed. What that means is folding up these gold-plated, highly sensitive mirrors and then launching it into space. Then, it has to unfurl like a large $10 billion dollar umbrella, and we know how well umbrellas work generally, let alone with a telescope. Once we get it out to, it's called L2, Lagrange point 2, it will unfurl. Hopefully, it will unfurl. This is the thing that's making all of us nervous.
Matt: Sure. You need that mirror because of the sun, right? That's the point of the mirror?
Shannon: Yes. The cold part of the mirror is going to be facing out to the rest of space and then the back of it essentially serves as a giant sun shield. Where it's going to be parked out, it lined up with the earth and the sun and the back of it will block the light from the sun, which will allow keep it at a good temperature and will also allow it to just not have any interference while it does its observations.
Matt: What do we hope we might learn from the images that this telescope gathers assuming it makes it up there? New planets, black holes? What are we going to find out?
Shannon: Hopefully all of those things. I think getting a view at the oldest galaxies, being able to see farther back into the history of our universe than we've ever seen before, can give us more answers and more context for how our universe came to be, what happened after the big bang. We generally know a lot of those answers but there's gaps in the storyline and JWST is really our next big hope for filling in those gaps. By understanding how old the universe is, what happened, what are those galaxies like that were first created, it'll help us understand how do galaxies form and why does our galaxy look like it does and Andromeda looks like it does. It fills in the story and we're missing so much of it, so it's really important.
Matt: Is there a specific thing you'd want to know that maybe it could tell you, something about black holes and what's going on over there? Is there something specifically that you can't wait to find out that this telescope might hold the answers to?
Shannon: It's possible that JWST could detect life. By being able to look throughout the universe in infrared light, it allows us to see heat signatures to see how far light is stretched, which means that when something is that sensitive, there could be anomalies or things that it detects that alert us to possible life in the universe. I think that's the most exciting thing.
Matt: A cynic might ask, not me but a cynic, how can we justify spending all of this money on space exploration, particularly space exploration that might not even pan out, we don't even know if this thing will get up there, when we have so many unresolved issues here on earth?
Shannon: I think one thing it's really important to note that yes, $10 billion dollars for a telescope objectively seems like a lot of money, that is a lot of money, but NASA who's paying for the telescope only gets less than 1/2 of 1% of the entire or federal budget. You don't even pay half of a penny out of your tax dollars to fund NASA. It's like a crumb of funding, so in that sense, it's really not that much money.
The truth is that we can do both. It's really about what we value, how we allocate resources here on earth. We know that we're not great at doing that in general, but space exploration really is an opportunity for us to learn how we're connected to each other. We do that by sending spacecraft out to other planets, by launching telescopes like JWST, by looking at or using Hubble to observe the cosmos, by giving us context and a story for how we came into existence, how we exist in the context of things, is a tremendous gift? It's incredibly human to want to explore space, to want to look up and ask these questions. I think that if we are not doing that in tandem with taking care of things proper on earth then we're robbing ourselves of a truly human experience.
Matt: Right, that's beautifully put. Is there anything that we can learn about life on earth? Anything tangible that we can learn to help human beings by exploring space?
Shannon: Oh, absolutely. NASA in terms of climate change and climate monitoring, it's satellites responsible for most of our understanding of climate change. That's one facet of it. I think that the Pale Blue Dot is a great example of that. The famous image taken by the Voyager 1 Spacecraft on Valentine's Day in 1990. Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of Carl Sagan's death so we were all discussing it, but just a photograph if we used one example and not even use the science. Just one image of the spacecraft, looking back at the IR-solar system from billions of miles away and snapping a picture of earth as a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
If that does not make you think about your neighbors and your family and our environment, and how we exist here with each other, then I don't know what will. We are truly here together and I think that that's the biggest gift, even more than the science than anything from space exploration is reminding us that we are here together. How incredible it is that we get to know that. That we get to travel far out into space and look back and give ourselves this gift of reflection and go, "Wow, that's us. That's all of us too. It's not just me, it's all of us."
Matt: That was so eloquently put Shannon, and I think is an important perspective for us to consider at this moment, considering all the challenges here on earth. Thank you so much for joining us on The Takeaway.
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