Watching science unfold

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I’ve been captivated by the journey of the James Webb Space Telescope since its launch on Christmas Day.

The whole project is astonishing and a bit surreal in the sense that it involves the unfolding and rigging of a football-field sized scientific instrument that was crammed into the nose cone of an Ariane rocket. No one’s ever tried it before.

The satellite, which weighs about 8 tons, was launched by NASA in collaboration with the European and Canadian Space Agencies from the Guiana Space Centre in South America and placed into a near-perfect trajectory for its 1 million mile trek to the Second Lagrange point (L2) – a place in the heavens where the gravity of earth and the sun work together to create a neutral point to park.

Since the launch, hundreds of commands have been sent to the satellite from the space center at Johns Hopkins University just west of us in Baltimore.

Dutifully following each directive, the craft has unfolded its antennas, its 21-foot diameter mirror, and a 5 layer sunshield using a space engineer’s toolbag of hinges, springs, hooks, pins, cables, pullies, explosive devices, motors, and other gizmos, any of which could have failed and doomed the whole $10 billion project.

But nothing (so far) failed – the telescope is now fully deployed and after a few months of fine tuning and cooling will start taking pictures.

The Webb is not likely to pay us back directly with the development of a new flavor of Tang or a new generation of cordless tools– but that’s OK with me. 

This is a conceptual project in which astrophysicists are allowing us all to get a glimpse into our roots — up to 13.5 billion years ago — when things were evidently a lot different.

Frankly, the so-called “Big Bang” idea seems preposterous to me and I’m half convinced the scientists are going to discover they’re wrong about the whole thing.  But no matter what, we’re going to get some great infrared photos to light up Instagram.

Mostly I think for me it’s been a welcome opportunity over a holiday season to savor the astounding creativity and ingenuity of the human spirit rather than focusing on our less than sanguine sides.

Featured image: Artistic rendering of the fully deployed and unfolded James Webb Space Telescope. Adriana Manrique Gutierrez/NASA

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Charles Stangor is Gettysburg Connection's Publisher and Editor in Chief.

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  • A welcome event, indeed, and a very welcome reminder “to savor the astounding creativity and ingenuity of the human spirit”. Thank you!

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