Why Is The James Webb Space Telescope Such A Big Deal?

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“There are billions of places out there that we know nothing about. The fact that we know nothing about them excites me, and I want to go out and find out about them. And that is what science is.”

  • English physicist Brian Cox 

Lensmaker Hans Lippershey laid the modern foundation for astronomy when he designed the refracting telescope. Later, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei made a significant leap by peering into the cosmos through the telescope which he had perfected. Since then, innumerable discoveries have been made, and our knowledge of the universe continues to grow. 

The invention of the telescope dates back to the early 17th century. Although it has been over three centuries, the farthest the Hubble Space Telescope can see is not over 15 billion light-years while the observable universe is approximated to be 93 billion light years in diameter. In 1996, the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) was developed as the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope to further the journey into space. The James Webb Space Telescope was designed to peer through the most distant parts of the universe specifically the stars and galaxies which were born immediately after the Big Bang.  

The Webb space telescope is an infrared telescope capable of seeing the formation of the first galaxies. NASA has proclaimed that while the Hubble space telescope can see galaxies which may be considered “toddler galaxies”, the Webb telescope can see galaxies considered to be “baby galaxies”. It is a great feat and further pushes humanity to go beyond the Dark Ages. The most notable feature of the Webb telescope is the five-layer sunshield. It has enabled the space telescope to counter the effects of infrared radiation, thereby maintaining the temperature. Despite the superiority of the Webb space telescope, the development and launch of the telescope have been plagued by misfortunes and delays. 

The major reason which has caused the delay is human errors. The usage of the wrong solvent to clean the propulsion valves, inadequate inspections, the erroneous connection in the wiring of flight hardware and the improper installation of sunshield cover are few of the human errors which have greatly impacted the progress of the Webb space telescope. The sunshield installation in the Webb space telescope poses great difficulty as well. Since the idea is new and revolutionary, the understanding and experience of the subject is limited. Although the project has stayed afloat due to constant support from various benefactors, it still faces serious threat due to the ever-increasing cost of development and the constant push of launching dates. 

The initial launch of the Webb space telescope was planned in 2007.  The project encountered intermittent delays due to the increasing costs of development and insufficient allocation of budget. The estimated expenses rose up from 0.5 billion USD to 1.9 billion USD within four years. By the year 2011, NASA had diverted one-fourth of its budget in the James Webb space telescope project which raised alarms at the United States House of Representatives’ appropriation committee on Commerce, Justice and Science. There has been a widespread dispute over the exorbitant amount of money which is being pooled into the ominous project. In 2018, the budget for the Webb space telescope had been capped at a whopping 9.66 billion USD, and the launch has been planned for March 2021.

The James Webb space telescope started as an ambitious project which would facilitate us to expand our horizons but has now been deemed as the doom of astronomy. The future that awaits the Webb space telescope is still unclear. 

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