Science //

The future of space exploration is looking back

The James Webb Space Telescope reminds us not all space exploration is a chauvinistic display.

Launched on the 25th of December, 2021 and costing around USD 10 billion, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is considered the next generation of space exploration. Equipped with state-of-the-art technology, this telescope sits 1.5 million kilometres from Earth in a gravitationally stable location called a Lagrange point. Its mission is to collect data that will help astronomers answer questions about the early universe.

The telescope consists of an enormous sunshield that unfurled over one day, a primary mirror composed of 18 individual mirrors, and a secondary mirror. It is predicted to take nearly three months for the 18 mirrors to align, after which the telescope will begin providing invaluable data to astronomers.

Unlike its predecessor – the Hubble Space telescope – the JWST will orbit the Sun instead of the Earth. From here, its fine-tuned instruments will detect infrared wavelengths. This enables it to observe a completely different set of variables from Hubble, which detected optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

Infrared radiation detected from far away cosmic entities will provide insight into the universe’s origins and the behaviour of early stars and galaxies due to a phenomenon called redshift. As the universe expands, the wavelengths of light emitted by distant objects stretch, shifting from optical wavelengths to infrared wavelengths towards the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum. This phenomenon is similar to how a car coming at you has a high pitch but sounds low once it passes.

Spearheaded by the National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA), the JWST seeks to eclipse all previous telescopes in its technical prowess. Combining the efforts of the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency, NASA launched the telescope to advance cosmological research.

While an exceptional scientific achievement, the advancement of space research is tightly bound to these agencies. For better or worse, their histories and political mandates cannot be divorced from their scientific purposes.

NASA, for example, was the cornerstone of America’s efforts in the Space Race. With roots in the Cold War Period, NASA was a powerful proxy to prove America’s military prowess over the Soviet Union. Created in 1958 amid panic over the Soviet Sputnik satellite, NASA implicitly supported America’s imperialist agenda from the outset.

NASA was also formed out of a desire for military control of space. During his time as a US Senator, Lyndon Johnson supported establishing the agency for the sole purpose of expanding American military power. However, he compromised with President Eisenhower to create a civilian agency instead.

At its inception, NASA brought together scientists from the Army, Air Force, and Navy, especially ballistics and rocketry experts. Nazi scientists were also involved. Their experience with the V-2 Rocket made them highly sought after post-World War II.

Amid the recent formation of the United States Space Force and such capitalist projects as the joyrides taken by Musk and Bezos last year, the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope is special. The military-industrial complex looms large over American science and engineering, drawing graduates from across the world with the promise of funds, but this telescope is different. 

While the roots of NASA lie in imperialism and American exceptionalism, the JWST represents some of the purer scientific intentions of space exploration. The telescope hopes to answer key questions in modern astronomy instead of establishing military dominance.

With the power to investigate celestial bodies distant in both space and time, the JWST hopes to pinpoint when light first appeared in the universe – in other words, when the first star was formed. Astronomers hope to track the formation of galaxies and see the changing organisation of matter on a cosmic scale. Scientists will then be able to apply this knowledge at any scale – from the organisation of geologic structures to subatomic structures crucial to life.

By examining the atmospheres of exoplanets – planets in solar systems outside our own – astronomers may locate other habitable planets. As a general observatory, teams of scientists from across the globe will be able to submit proposals to study the data gathered by the telescope.

Astronomers, aeronautical engineers and simple science lovers should rejoice at the chance to be in a new era of cosmology. Even the astronomically apathetic can celebrate the pursuit of knowledge, not war.