Just how insanely difficult was the building of the $10 billion James Webb Telescope and what are the odds it’s a huge failure?
Quanta Magazine chronicled the birth of the James Webb Telescope in such vivid details and insightful anecdotes, they just won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.
Watch the video but make sure you don’t miss the accompanying article, as it’s a superb piece of journalism.
“To look back in time at the cosmos’s infancy and witness the first stars flicker on, you must first grind a mirror as big as a house. Its surface must be so smooth that, if the mirror were the scale of a continent, it would feature no hill or valley greater than ankle height,” begins Natalie Wolchove’s delving into what many might call mankind’s most ambitious project.
And if you think building such a mirror is impressive, what comes next is mind boggling.
“We’re going to put our zillion-dollar telescope on top of a stack of explosive material,” said John Mather, the Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist in charge of this 25 years in the making NASA project.
He was referring to the fact that that mirror mentioned in the piece would be impossible to ship to space in one piece. Instead, it had to be arranged as a honeycomb of mirror segments that would be stored folded in a rocket, and then perfectly aligned in space ” by increments of half the width of a virus until they’re all in place.” Can you see just how many ways such a project could go wrong?
That’s just a teaser of how the James Webb Telescope was built – the full Quanta Magazine coverage goes back as early as the 60s, providing a fascinating insight into NASA’s projects and the ambitions of man.