The James Webb Space Telescope: Why should we care?


Earth is one of 100 billion planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way. So far, we have only discovered 4,000 exoplanets. Our universe is a vast ocean of space waiting to be explored and with the help of the Jame Webb Space Telescope, we will be able to discover significantly more.


Launched on December 25, 2021, the JWST is on its current journey to L2. The reason for this specific location is because of the canceled-out gravitational system that will not only sustain JWST’s fuel but keep it far away (approximately one million miles) from Earth’s heat. It will take roughly 30 days to reach the start of L2’s orbit.


NASA had developed this project 30 years ago to create a more powerful telescope than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. Both spacecrafts’ purposes were to take precise photos of objects in space. However, JWST’s capabilities go beyond Hubble’s where it can see much further into our universe and capture images of the birth of stars and galaxies. And there is much more.


“Hubble changed our understanding of the universe in many, many ways. We are expecting James Webb will do the same thing,” explained Micah Abelson. 


Abelson is an aerospace engineer at Northrop Grumman, a company that manufactured the JWST. He came into the project in 2007 and was the lead mechanical designer for the spacecraft’s bus, the foundation for the observatory. 


The Hubble telescope has been in space for over 30 years. So, why is James Webb needed? Well, for one thing, it has more adept instruments. The mirror on Hubble was 2 ½ meters while JWST was 6 ½ meters. This is important since a bigger mirror lets the telescope collect more light which increases the telescope’s ability to see.


Another difference between the two telescopes is that JWST is an infrared telescope, meaning it can detect objects that would be unobservable in visible light. This is when the Doppler effect comes in. As the universe is expanding, the expansion of the universe accelerates. In doing so, the solar systems’ light shifts farther away from us and into the infrared. James Webb will be able to see those objects that Hubble can’t. 


“It is also predicted that JWST will be able to see 13.5 billion light-years away, whereas Hubble could see 13 billion,” describes Abelson. “That is a small difference, but they think the universe is 13.7 billion years old. So James Webb is expected to see when stars and galaxies first started forming in the universe.” 


However, creating a gigantic, high-tech telescope isn’t cheap. Thousands of people around the world helped with this project with 30 years of hard work and about $10 billion. This is a lot of money, but it is nothing compared to US government spending. For 2021, the submitted budget was $6.8 trillion; $10 billion is barely a fraction. 


“It seems to me that if you think about cost and funding in an exploration/science field, then it will be worth the investment,” says senior Bryan Fan. “There is little we know about the galaxy. The fact is that it’s a bigger project that contains more features than Hubble, so it’s worth the investment.” 


The James Webb Telescope has only been seen as a way for scientists to explore space and is not useful for normal people. But JWST has affected everyday technology. Lasik eye surgery has benefited from these advances. Currently, it has made it possible to 3-D map the eye for surgeons to create more accurate treatment plans to achieve a better quality of vision for each patient. 


James Webb also has the capabilities to discover whether a planet can sustain life. 


“JWST will look at planets of other stars and it has instruments that will let them detect the atmosphere around a planet around another star,” says Abelson. “So we will be able to detect if there are signs of life on other planets using James Webb because we will be able to see if there is oxygen, water, or carbon dioxide.” 


Discovering life would be a society-changing event. But some don’t think that James Webb’s achievments will affect regular people. 


“There are so many variables. These discoveries will impact us in great ways, but I’m uncertain about it,” notes freshman Tanisha Batta. “What if we do find a planet that can support life. Would it change anything here on Earth?” 


Once JWST does reach L2, it will stay there until the fuel runs out, which is approximately 10 years. This will be enough time for us to use it to explore our universe. But once the telescope runs out of fuel, it will float into space and never be used again. 


Not many people are interested in space exploration. This is fine since most don’t think much of this will change anything that is on Earth. But just knowing that there is a chance that we are not the only beings in our universe is momentous. 

“I don’t know that it will affect the average person…” Abelson ponders, “If you’re not interested in space, science, or how the universe works you’re probably not going to be too interested in anything we discover with James Webb. Unless we found signs of life in the universe. I have to imagine that would change a lot of people’s minds about a lot of things, no matter whether you care about science or not.” 


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