The new giant telescope is already facing major criticism, as scientists critique its design and technology.
On Wednesday, NASA officially revealed a partnership with the European Space Agency to build the largest and most powerful telescope in the world — with an initial cost of $2.3 billion. The James Webb Space Telescope will gaze into deep space from an orbit located thousands of miles above Earth, where it will be able to see far-flung, cold, and abandoned planets and detect “covers” surrounding Mars and other worlds. The telescope, when finished, will be 10 times larger than current giant telescopes in space, and powerful enough to detect atmospheres “at the subatomic level.”
In a public statement, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate director Thomas Zurbuchen characterized the telescope as the “next great milestone” in science exploration.
“JWST will have a spectacular view of the universe,” Zurbuchen said. “It will go places no telescope has gone before.”
Critics, however, see a telescope that fails to live up to some astronomers’ expectations.
The Webb Telescope’s primary mirror — about as wide as a basketball court and measuring 84 meters, or 290 feet — is bigger than most metropolitan skyscrapers, and may be difficult to assemble and operate. Because the telescope was designed on computer models, engineers aren’t completely sure how the telescope will function. With these questions left to be answered, some say the telescope is not ready for prime time. The fact that its massive mirror could be hard to cut into an actual piece of glass has some scientists worried that even if the mirror does work, the entire project may be delayed by years.
According to Quartz, the telescope is designed with NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration in mind, which likely means the first telescope could spend years working without a “pitch-black atmosphere,” as the telescope will shoot its light into deep space at more than 17,000 miles per hour. Many experts have cautioned that the plan to keep the telescope in one piece, from the ground down, may violate National Institute of Standards and Technology requirements.
Critics of the project also are critical of NASA’s “two-stage” architecture that will allow the Webb Telescope to scurry through space while waiting for distant planets to pass in front of the sun. Such planets would act as shadows for the telescope, preventing it from traveling far enough to look at them without its mirror growing tiny or broken.
Some are also concerned about the fact that the first human mission to another star system will be delayed after 2019, by two years, according to Futurity.com. Because of the length of time it will take NASA to make the first missions for Webb, experts worry about what will happen to science after the telescope is finished in 2023.
As the Hubble Space Telescope endured a “silent launch” in 1990, causing it to be out of commission for 17 years, some worry that the giant telescope will also have to endure a lengthy delay. If this happens, the astronomical data it produces would have to wait before the agency can use it in its missions.
The design for the Webb Telescope was developed by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and handled by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, a defense contractor and a unit of Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corporation. And this is not the first time the Webb Telescope has faced difficulties and criticism. Even as NASA announced the new partnership, the small, European-built advanced optics device, known as the “binocular adaptive optics” — which creates sharp images with every second of observation — suffered a setback.
“Webb telescope needs some amazing science and the community is ready to fight to fund more bad assumptions,” said James Gillies, a director of studies at the nonprofit Space Policy Institute in Pasadena, California.