December 9, 2022

The James Webb telescope looks like a giant honeycomb

The JWST has been compared to a giant slice of honeycomb balancing on a sheaf of silver wrappers. And in illustrations it certainly looks like something from an over-imaginative primary school science project.

At 25 years and nearly $10 billion in the making, it is the product of intensive research and design by 10,000 astrophysicists, engineers and chemists, many of them British, over the course of 40 million ‘build hours’.

It has also been dogged by delays and ballooning costs that swallowed up the budget of so many other projects, it has been called ‘the telescope that ate astronomy’.

But as it is the most powerful space observatory ever built and will allow us to peer back billions of years into the cosmic Dark Ages — almost to the Big Bang — and find the first light that ever shone in the Universe, astronomers hope it will be worth the wait.

If all goes to plan, it will be launched on December 22 from Europe’s spaceport at Kourou in French Guiana.

Folded up like a piece of origami, it will be carried into space on an Ariane 5 rocket. Once in orbit a million miles from Earth, it will begin unfolding, then spend more than six months calibrating and testing its instruments.

When all is ready, it will beam down 458 gigabits of data a day for up to ten years, with its pictures picked up by large radio antennae worldwide and relayed to an operations centre in Baltimore.

The project, originally envisaged in the mid 1990s, was so ambitious that Nasa turned for help to the European Space Agency, of which the UK is a member, and its Canadian equivalent.

It is named after former Nasa administrator James E. Webb, who almost became a victim of ‘cancel culture’ this year. He was accused of being complicit in discrimination against gay and lesbian people in the 1960s and his name was retained only after an internal inquiry found no evidence to support the allegations.

Space telescopes allow scientists to get a clearer view of stars, planets and galaxies by circumventing Earth’s atmosphere. They are, in effect, time machines. Given how long light takes to reach Earth from deep space, the farther you look, the farther back in time you’re going.