There are only a few instances in the history of a species when it acquires the knowledge, the daring, and the means necessary to make significant progress in the investigation of its genesis. According to astronomers, humanity is now experiencing such a period.
According to the storey that they (and the rest of us) have been telling ourselves (and each other) for the past several decades, the first stars appeared when the universe was around one hundred million years old.
In magnificent supernova explosions, they blazed brightly and perished quickly, blasting the dismal shroud of gas left behind from the primordial pyrotechnics known as the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. In the beginning, there were just a few sparks. From those sparks sprang everything we care about in the universe – the long, continuous chain of cosmic development that has generated everything from galaxies and planets to microorganisms and humans.
The resources necessary to answer that question and others are readily available. James Webb Space Telescope, the largest and most powerful telescope ever launched into space, is currently housed in a spaceport near the French territory of Guiana. It is surrounded like a butterfly by a cocoon of technology, ambition, metal and wires and is the most expensive telescope ever launched into space, having cost a total of $10 billion. Its mission is to take a brave step back in time and see the very earliest stars and galaxies.
First, antennae will emerge from the spacecraft and point toward the Earth, allowing communication. In the next few minutes, the scaffolding for an enormous sunscreen the size of a tennis court will be unveiled, followed by the sunscreen itself, which will be constructed from five thin sheets of a plastic known as Kapton.
Last but not least, 18 gold-plated beryllium hexagons will snap together to create a segmented mirror measuring 6.5 metres (21 feet) in diameter. By then, the telescope will have arrived at its final target, a location known as L2, which will be floating on its solar shield and aiming towards the end of the universe.
Even before the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, astronomers were debating what should come next in terms of technological advancement. He served as the chairman of a commission that proposed a Next Generation Space Telescope that would be strong enough to observe the earliest stars and galaxies in the cosmos, among other things. It would have to be at least 4 metres in diameter (Hubble’s mirror was only 2.4 metres wide) and very sensitive to infrared light, and it would have to cost $1 billion to accomplish this feat.
Despite the fact that NASA was willing to go the distance, its administrator, Dan Goldin, was concerned that a 4-meter telescope would not be sensitive enough to discover those early stars. In 1996, he marched into a meeting of the American Astronomical Society and reprimanded Dr. Dressler and his committee for being too careful about their research findings. He said that the new telescope will be 8 metres wide, representing a significant increase in power, cost, and development time.
The telescope, which had more than doubled in size, could no longer be transported on any extant rocket. Because of this, the telescope’s mirror would have to be foldable, and the telescope would have to assemble itself while in orbit. Finally, NASA agreed on a mirror that was 6.5 metres wide, about three times the size of Hubble’s and capable of collecting seven times the amount of light that Hubble did. However, all of the difficulties associated with creating and constructing it persisted.
If the foldable mirror performs as expected, the mission might pave the way for the launch of large telescopes that are now too large to go on rockets. Only a few weeks ago, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences proposed that NASA build a huge space telescope with a diameter of at least 8 metres to search for habitable planets. However, if Webb’s origami fails, NASA and the astronomical community will be forced to take a long, hard look at their plans and start from scratch.
The setbacks continued to pile up. At one time, it was anticipated that the telescope would cost around $5 billion and be completed by 2011; in the event, it cost almost $10 billion and took 25 years to complete. It was feared that cost overruns and blunders would divert funds away from other programmes in NASA’s scientific budget. According to the magazine Nature, it was “the telescope that ate astronomy.” The United States Congress contemplated repealing it completely ten years ago.
And that, no doubt, will lead to the creation of new ones. Klaus Pontoppidan, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said at a recent press conference that the telescope was intended to answer questions that were previously unknown to humanity. “The telescope was built to answer questions we didn’t know we had.”