Why the world astronomers are very, very anxious right now

What do astronomers eat for breakfast the day their $ 10 billion telescope is sent into space? Their nails.

“You work for years and it all goes up in a puff of smoke,” said Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona.

Dr. Rieke admits she will cross her fingers on the morning of December 24 when she sets out on the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. For 20 years she has been working on designing and building an ultra-sensitive infrared camera that will live on board the spacecraft. Webb is the infamous bigger and more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomers expect that it will pierce a dark curtain of ignorance and conjecture about the early days of the universe and allow them to sniff for nearby exoplanets.

After $ 10 billion and years of delays, the telescope is finally scheduled to take off from a European launch site in French Guiana on its way to a point one million miles on the other side of the moon. (Late Tuesday, NASA delayed the launch for at least two days).

An informal and totally unscientific study of randomly selected astronomers revealed a community that sat on the edge of their seats and felt nervous, proud and grateful for the team that developed, built and tested the new telescope over the last quarter century.

“I almost certainly want to see the launch and be horrified all the time,” said Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a professor of physics and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire.

And there is enough to be worried about. The Ariane 5 rocket carrying the spacecraft has rarely failed to deliver its payload to orbit. But even if it survives the launch, the telescope will have a long way to go.

Over the next month, it will have to perform a series of maneuvers with 344 “single points of failure” to unfold its large golden mirror and unfold five thin layers of a giant plastic sunscreen that will keep the telescope and its instruments in the cold. and dark. Engineers and astronomers call this interval six months of high anxiety because there is no prospect of any human or robotic intervention or rescue if something should go wrong.

But if all these steps succeed, what astronomers see through that telescope can change everything. They hope to spot the first stars and galaxies emerging from the nebula when the universe was only 100 million years old, in short the first steps out of the big bang towards the cozy light show we live in today.

“The entire astronomical community, given the wide range of expected scientific returns and discovery potential, has skin in play” with the telescope, said Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale. “We are all intellectually and emotionally invested.”

But the telescope has been snake-bitten during its long development with cost overruns and costly accidents that have increased the normal apprehension of rocket launches.

Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the Kavli Foundation in Los Angeles and former president of the American Physical Society, described the combination of “excitement and terror” he expected to feel during the launch.

“The next decade of astronomy and astrophysics is based on the success of the JW,” said Dr. Referring to the James Webb Space Telescope, “and American prestige and leadership in space and science are also at stake. It’s a heavy burden to bear, but we know how to do great things.”

That statement was reiterated by Martin Rees of Cambridge University and the royal astronomer for the British royal households.

“Any error in JWST would be disastrous for NASA,” he wrote in an email. “But if the error involves a mechanical procedure – unfolding a blind or unfolding the pieces of the mirror – this will be a mega-catastrophic and embarrassing PR disaster. That’s because it would involve an error in something seemingly ‘simple’ that everyone can understand. “

Dr. Natarajan, who will use Webb to search for the origins of supermassive black holes, said: “I try to be Zen and not imagine catastrophic results.”

But in describing the efforts, she compared the telescope to other milestones in human history.

“Remarkable lasting results of human hand and mind, be it the temples of Mahabalipuram, the pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China or the Sistine Chapel have all taken time and cost,” she said. “I really see JWST as such a monument in our time.”

Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, who chaired a committee 25 years ago leading the Webb project, answered with his own question when asked how nervous he was.

“When you know someone is going to have a critical operation, then you would sit down and have a conversation about ‘what if it fails?'” He wrote. He added that his colleagues “know there is no security here and it is of no use to any of us to ponder it.”

Another astronomer who has been involved in this project from the beginning, Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in an email that he was optimistic about the launch despite his reputation for being a “glass is half empty “kind of guy.

“The installations are complex, but my view is that everything humanly possible has been done!” he wrote. He said that although there were surprises in the telescope’s setup, “he did not expect these to be either major or conclusive – not at all.”

Other respondents in my study also sought refuge from their nervousness in the skill and commitment of their colleagues.

Andrea Ghez of the University of California, Los Angeles, who won the Nobel Prize in 2020 for her observations of the black hole in the center of our galaxy, said she kept her sanity “by trusting that really wise people have worked really hard to get things right. “

That thought was passed on by Tod Lauer, an astronomer at NOIRLab in Tucson, Arizona, who was in the middle of it when the Hubble Space Telescope was launched and turned out to have a deformed mirror that required repair visits by astronauts on the now-retired space shuttle. He said his feelings regarding the upcoming launch were solely about the engineers and technicians who built the Webb telescope.

“You very quickly respect the team’s nature by doing anything in space, and your reliance on scientists and engineers that you may never even know to get it right,” he said. “No one wants it to fail, and I have yet to meet anyone in this who did not take their part seriously.”

He added that astronomers had to rely on their colleagues in rocket and spacecraft engineering to get it right.

“Anyone who knows how to fly a $ 10 billion spacecraft on a precision orbit will not be impressed by an astronomer who has never taken an engineering course in his life while sneaking behind his laptop and watching the launch,” said Dr. Lauer. “You feel admiration and empathy for these people and try to act worthy of the incredible gift they bring to the world.”

And if something goes wrong, some astronomers said they would keep in perspective that only hardware, not humans, are at stake.

“Should anything bad happen, I will be crushed,” said Dr. Prescod-Weinstein. “I’m glad that human life is at least not at stake.”

There was also a lot to look at if everything works as intended, said Dr. Rieke, who worked on the telescope’s infrared camera.

“When the camera turns on, we’re having another party,” she said.

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