The Greatest Gift

By William J. Furney

We may have our problems on Earth — covid one of the most pressing, with its almost 5.4 million deaths, and sadly counting — and the pope warned on Christmas Day that the world was becoming inured and indifferent to catastrophes and tragedies, because we live in ever-troubled times and people are fed up listening to bad news. 

A friend of mine no longer follows the news, she told me this week, because she’s tired of the nonstop covid developments and other events, almost always negative, that she’d rather not know about. I’d love to do the same, but I also like to keep up — and I’m not an ostrich. 

But humanity got great news on Christmas Day — and a spectacular gift — when the largest space telescope ever constructed, costing a whopping $10 billion, blasted off from French Guiana and began its five-year mission to explore the origins of the universe. 

A joint, 30-year endeavour between the space agencies of the United States, Europe and Canada, the James Webb Space Telescope is named after NASA’s second administrator and is the successor to that other great eye in the cosmos, Hubble, which was designed to last for 15 years but has marked more than double that in sending back spectacular images of space and is still going strong.

Detractors say all the many billions spent on space is a waste of money and would be better put to use solving the many problems on Earth — hunger, poverty, homelessness, disease, child trafficking, climate change and many other issues on the exceedingly long list. But, fundamentally, we are a travelling and exploring species, and agencies the world over indeed help those in need, and we as a people have an innate and burning desire to answer the eternal, elusive questions: why are we here, how did the universe begin, are we part of a multiverse and are we alone in the vast expanse of inhospitable space?

Unlike Hubble, which uses visible and ultraviolet light to capture its stunning images of iridescent nebulae, exploding supernovae and other heavenly delights, the Webb telescope and its gold-plated mirror will work with the infrared part of the light spectrum. This will enable the mighty machine to peer right back to the beginning of time — the supposed Big Bang when everything in the now-unfathomably large universe exploded from a tiny, dense dot, or point. 

Its ultra-sensitive instruments will be able, it is hoped, to trace light back to its origins, given that light travels at 300,000 kilometres a second and takes aeons to reach different worlds — look up into the night sky and you’re looking back in history at all those twinkling stars, which may not even be there while you’re viewing. And so Webb has been called a time machine and is expected to reveal some of the mysteries of our existence. 

“Lift off from a tropical rainforest to the edge of time itself, James Webb begins a voyage back to the birth of the universe,” NASA TV commentator Rob Navias said as the Ariane rocket feeding the telescope to space blasted off. 

The current NASA boss, Bill Nelson, said the costly instrument could reveal surprising secrets about the universe that we may not even yet suspect. 

“The James Webb Space Telescope represents the ambition that NASA and our partners maintain to propel us forward into the future. The promise of Webb is not what we know we will discover; it’s what we don’t yet understand or can’t yet fathom about our universe. I can’t wait to see what it uncovers.”

How long until Webb starts beaming its first, eagerly awaited images back to Earth? Around the middle of next year, says NASA. 

“The world’s largest and most complex space science observatory will now begin six months of commissioning in space. At the end of commissioning, Webb will deliver its first images,” the US space agency said after Saturday’s flawless launch.

“Webb carries four state-of-the-art science instruments with highly sensitive infrared detectors of unprecedented resolution. Webb will study infrared light from celestial objects with much greater clarity than ever before. The premier mission is the scientific successor to NASA’s iconic Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, built to complement and further the scientific discoveries of these and other missions.”

The future — as with other grand missions, like the race to Mars — lies not in looking inward and complaining about all our many troubles but looking up and being inspired by the beauty and mysteries of our existence.

And so this sparkling, new telescope represents a collective gift to humanity this Christmas. 

  • Title image shows the James Webb Space Telescope shortly after being released from the rocket that carried it to space on Christmas Day. (Image courtesy Arianespace)