Spare a thought for the work that NASA engineers have put in to the development of the James Webb telescope, the “largest and most technically complex space science telescope NASA has ever built.”
If you are in software development, you will appreciate the testing that the latest NASA initiative went through. Engineers worked 24 hours a day for 15 days, completing a 1,370 step process.
It also, in a familiar way, had its setbacks and delays and, of course, budget overruns. In fact, it was due to launch in 2007.
The interesting thing about the James Webb telescope (named after the man who ran the space agency from 1961 – 1968) is that it will orbit the sun, not earth, but in such a way that it ‘keeps up’ with our planet. It will also complement and extend the work that the Hubble telescope does.
The interesting question is, of course, what will it see?
Whether or not it provides the answers to mysterious mega-structures remains to be seen but we are already glimpsing so much more of the galaxy that we live in that it may provide some better answers than we have at the moment.
For instance, for decades we have wondered about the star eating phenomena called black holes. We have assumed that everything that comes near one will be swallowed whole. Science fiction writers, however, used to believe that black holes were hyperspace portals that would allow travellers to cross the galaxy in seconds.
This, now that we are becoming used to the ‘new weird’, seems more likely than it ever has before. It turns out that not all black holes are created equal. Some, according to scientists at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, are actually quite gentle in the gravitational pull they exert. The singularity could allow for ‘a very gentle passage.’ It is, says Guarav Khanna, ‘like passing your finger quickly through a candle and not getting burnt.’
The answer to that question is still a little way away – say 1,000 years or so – as a telescope is unlikely to produce the answers and we have to get there to find out.
One phenomenon that the James Webb telescope could certainly help with is the startling discovery of an intergalactic ‘wall’ of galaxies that is 1.4 billion light-years long, startlingly close to us. And we only just saw it. The South Pole wall is only half a billion light-years away and hiding in plain sight ‘behind’ the Milky Way, in an area known as the Zone of Galactic Obscuration (you have to love scientific naming).
If something that big is that close and we cannot see it, what else can we not see?
Perhaps the telescope will help us see visitors to our own solar system, something we seem to have been missing recently. Like the comet, Neowise – see below on how to see it – that just passed between us and the sun, and was only 20 million kilometres from it. There will, presumably, be others.
Another question that such a telescope could help with is, is what on earth is Planet Nine. For years, astronomers have observed strange gravitational movements way out beyond Pluto. Some believe it is a huge extra planet, five times the mass of Earth. Some believe it is a band of smaller rocks. And some believe there is the possibility that Planet Nine could be a grapefruit-sized black hole with a mass of five to 10 times that of the Earth!
Whatever objects and anomalies the James Webb telescope helps us discover and find answers to, we wish it bon voyage, hopefully next year.