Unfolding the Future

I know. It’s a cliche title. Especially since NASA uses “Unfolding the Universe” as sort of its slogan for the James Webb Space Telescope. I suppose that “Unfolding the Past” would also work.

You’ve seen it on the news, a huge infrared telescope 30 to 100 times more powerful than the venerated (and comparatively simple) Hubble Space Telescope.

There was some drama a while back when the then-new Hubble Space Telescope got to space and they discovered that the primary mirror had a flawed shape that, without repair, would have made that very expensive telescope useless. They did find the problem, built a lens to correct its fuzzy vision, and sent up astronauts on a Space Shuttle mission to install it. Since then, the public has liked the pretty pictures from Hubble, but most of its value was paid back many folds deep in the science that most of the public never saw. Hubble became one of NASA’s most successful endeavors.

However, Hubble orbits the Earth close by. The Space Shuttle put it there and human astronauts could deliver and install Hubble’s new glasses to correct its bad vision to keep it from being a failure. The James Webb Space Telescope will orbit the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point…a place in space far beyond the Moon’s orbit and way too far to send people to fix it if something goes wrong. On top of that, it is not a simple refractor like Hubble. The JWST uses a five-layer, kite-shaped, sun-shield the size of a tennis court that needs to be carefully unfolded.

Its huge primary mirror is segmented and folded together for launch. As it hurtles through space towards its new home, it is unfolding itself from its launch configuration to its operational configuration. Hundreds of things can go wrong. It might be the hardest thing that NASA has ever done with robotics. Instead of a huge tube dropped off in space, Webb must blossom perfectly like a flower. Someday we’ll have the technology to send crewed missions to the L2 Lagrange and further…but until then, the JWST has to deploy on its own using remote commands sent from Earth.

Hence the cliche “Unfold” metaphors. At this writing, they’ve successfully extended the mirror tower, unfurled all five layers of the sun-shield, and have just finished the careful stretching of each layer to its final shape.

Soon the three sections of the mirror will also unfold. When the JWST reaches its destination, it will begin its work looking deep into space. In doing so, it will also look back in time because most of the light that it will be able to see has been traveling through space for a very long time…even since the birth of the universe.

We have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars by measuring the wobble of a star caused by a planet orbiting it, or the flicker of a star as a planet passes between us and it. The vast distances and steller light have kept us from looking at most of those large planets, and the smaller planets, those like Earth, remain totally hidden within the star’s mass and glare. Now, the JWST has the resolution to observe even the smaller planets orbiting many of these stars. With the ability to see light from a planet, goes the ability to discern with spectrography the composition of a planet’s surface elements and atmosphere.

This is how we search for and find life.

So I guess that’s what we’re unfolding…life. Life for the robotics industry. A better understanding of what life needs. The possibility that we are not alone in this vast universe.

With it, we might find the assurance that the universe holds a chance for us puny humans to survive our petty grievances and selfishness long enough to make something of ourselves.

~ by Bill Housley on January 4, 2022.

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