The five layers of silvery material underneath the gold mirror are a sunshield that will reflect light and heat to keep the sensors incredibly cold. NASA/Chris Gunn, CC BY/The Conversation

By the time it was launched last Christmas Day, the James Webb Space Telescope was a decade late and billions of dollars over budget.

As it headed toward its destination 1 million miles from Earth, it was relying on technology that had never been used before. Had it not worked, the $10 billion telescope would have been a historic boondoggle, and it could have derailed the space program.

Now that it is sending home beautiful, haunting and otherworldly images of space as it has never been seen before, the telescope is clearly a stunning achievement that will expand our understanding of the universe right back to its very beginning.

It’s worth every cent we paid for it, and its success should make funding the next era in space exploration a no-brainer.

The Webb telescope is a technological marvel. For it to work, it had to find its way to a spot infinitely farther away than its predecessor, the Hubble telescope, which was orbiting just 340 miles from Earth.

It had to overcome 344 “single-point failures,” places where the telescope could fail once it was ready to launch.


It had to deploy dozens of mechanical arms, as well as five layers of foil-thin plastic stretching out to the size of a tennis court, protecting the telescope’s instruments from the sun. A 21-foot-wide array of 18 gold-plated mirrors reflect light into its sensors that read infrared light, producing images unlike any before.

That’s how we are able to see the foamy blue-and-orange image of a dying star through the cosmic dust that usually blocks out faraway light.

That’s how we get the shots of the Southern Ring Nebula, an expanding cloud of gas around a dying star about 2,500 light-years away, or about 15 quadrillion miles, and the Phantom Galaxy, where we can clearly see a cluster of stars 32 million light years in the distance.

The sensitive new instruments also are how scientists have been able to detect carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet 700 light years away in another solar system, and they’ve allowed researchers to peek in at another planet 385 light years in the distance that is just 15 million to 20 million years old — a baby compared to our 4 billion-year-old Earth, though it is at least six times the mass of Jupiter.

The Webb telescope has already allowed researchers to see in new detail how galaxies and planets form. Eventually, it will capture light that has been travelling toward us for more than 13 billion years, since the very dawn of time.

The telescope will help us solve longstanding mysteries about the beginning of the universe and the physics and formation of everything around us.


And it will raise new ones, as scientists attempt to make sense of images that confound expectations and send research in exciting new directions.

And we get it all for about what it cost to run the war in Afghanistan for about a month — and that war lasted for two decades.

Congress should remember that when questions are raised about funding for NASA. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that the next agency project be another giant telescope. It would look at the thousands of planets discovered over the last decade and search for one with the ability to support life.

That telescope, which could launch in the early 2040s, is expected to cost $11 billion.

There should be no doubt now that it will be an absolute bargain.



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