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How NASA’s Webb Space Telescope Will See Into Deep Space – Tech News Briefing

How NASA’s Webb Space Telescope Will See Into Deep Space – Tech News Briefing

 

This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.

Zoe Thomas: This is your Tech News Briefing for Thursday, December 23rd. I’m Zoe Thomas for the Wall Street Journal. The James Webb Space Telescope is 10 years overdue and coming in at 10 times over budget, but it’s also the most advanced telescope ever to be sent into space and the information it collects could help give us a far deeper understanding of how the universe began. On today’s show, our science writer, Robert Lee Hotz, joins us to discuss what the Webb Telescope is capable of and why, despite the delays, astronomer say it’ll be worth the wait. That’s after these headlines.
Another outage. Amazon Web Services was down again on Wednesday. That’s at least the third time this month the cloud service has gone down. The outages have caused internet issues for a range of companies. This time, Coinbase, Hulu, and Slack all experienced problems according to the tracker, Downdetector. Amazon didn’t say how many users were affected. Tesla is facing an investigation into a feature that allows people in its cars, including the drivers, to play games on a touch screen while the vehicles are in motion. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is looking into the feature, said playing games while driving could be a distraction that increases the risk of a crash. The agency said the gaming feature previously was only enabled while vehicles were parked. The probe covers about 580,000 Teslas of all types and model years from 2017 to the present. Tesla didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
And Intel has been making all sorts of new technology for decades, but how do you make sure any flaws in that old tech don’t cause problems for new products? And then where do you store all those old devices after they’ve been cataloged? For Intel, the answer was to store everything at a warehouse complex in Costa Rica. But to do that, our reporter, James Rundle from WSJ Pro Cybersecurity, says Intel needed to get its hands on all of those old products first. Maybe you like Video API.

James Rundle: Sometimes they had to go on eBay and buy it themselves to actually find a device they could use to analyze on. So they kept this idea that why don’t we just warehouse everything we create and we can put it all into this central location. When they first told me about it, I imagined that scene out of the end of Raiders of lost Ark with that big warehouse sense of technology everywhere. It’s sort of rows and rows of racks of these machines, where they keep some hots, which means they’re ready to use, and some cold, which means they can be spun up. But there’s something like 3000 pieces of equipment in there at the moment and they’re planning to expand that to 6,000 next year.

Zoe Thomas: All right, coming up. A new telescope going into space will let us see further into the universe’s past than ever before. We’ll have the details after the break. The James Webb Space Telescope is set to be launched into space this weekend. It’ll replace the Hubble Telescope that’s been orbiting the planet and taking pictures of distant stars for over 30 years. Named for the former NASA administrator, the Webb Telescope is far more powerful and should offer a much fuller picture of our universe’s past. That’s something scientists and space enthusiasts alike are excited about. We’ve got one of those space lovers with us today, WSJ science writer, Robert Lee Hotz. Thanks for coming back on the show, Lee.

Robert Lee Hotz: It’s always a pleasure to come here and talk to you about these things.

Zoe Thomas: I want to talk about the James Webb Telescope, but first let’s pay some homage to Hubble. It was pretty revolutionary when it went up. Can you tell us what it was capable of?

Robert Lee Hotz: Well, the Hubble Space Telescope, I remind you, is almost as old as some of our listeners here. Many astronomers call the Hubble the most productive scientific instrument ever built. I mean, it’s given us data that’s produced more than 18,000 scientific papers, and more importantly, at least a million mind expanding images of the universe. It’s documented the accelerating expansion of the cosmos, the evolution of galaxies and the detection of planets beyond our own solar system. But more importantly, it’s probably the most downloaded image producing astronomical instrument that’s ever come along. It’s highlighted the art of astronomy. It’s given us portraits of infant stars, of dying supernova, of colliding galaxies, towering billows of stellar dark matter, black holes. I mean, it’s quite something.

Zoe Thomas: Okay. But the Webb can do even more than that. What are some of the differences between the Webb and the Hubble?

Robert Lee Hotz: The big difference between the Hubble Space Telescope and the Webb Space Telescope, which is currently awaiting launch, is that they actually see the universe very differently. Hubble looks at light as primarily optical and ultraviolet, to say it really looks at the cosmos the same way we do pretty much. The Webb, on the other hand, is designed to detect primarily infrared light. And what this means is that the Webb can peer deeper into the cosmos, literally, in terms of distance than the Hubble can and more importantly, further back in time. And that’s going to open a window on the universe as it took shape soon after the Big Bang.

Zoe Thomas: That sounds really impressive. How is it going to do that and what else will it be able to do?

Robert Lee Hotz: The Webb looks at the universe with infrared sensors and they’re designed to capture the light emitted more than 3.6 billion years ago or so by the very first primordial stars. Now, these stars looked nothing like those that shine on us today. They were gargantuan furnaces that were hundreds, if not millions of times larger than our stars today. And by looking at this kind of light, it could reveal the earliest star clusters and supernovas. And these are the places in which almost all the elements that make us up today were forged. And they won’t just be looking back at the beginning of our time. They’ll be using the new telescope also to probe black holes at the center of galaxies, they’ll be searching for the chemical signatures of life on extrasolar planets, is what we call those planets that circle stars other than our own, and closer to home, they’ll even be studying the frozen oceans on moons at the edge of our own solar system. There’s a lot that it can take in.

Zoe Thomas: So what’s built into the Webb then that the Hubble didn’t have that lets it do all of this?

Robert Lee Hotz: So the Webb is an extraordinary device. It’s a big gadget and by most accounting, this $10 billion gadget is among the most expensive science instruments ever built. It’s 10 years late and it’s 10 times over its original cost, so this is a really big bet on our ability to study the cosmos that brought us into being. So what are we going to use to do this and what are the special innovations that the Webb embodies? Well, we’ve mentioned the infrared detectors. These are the most sensitive infrared detectors ever built. I mean, they’ve really extended the state of the art. So each Webb detector, some of them have about four million pixels and the mid-infrared detectors, which are going to be the real workhorses of this mission, have about one million pixels each. Now all of these pixels are only as useful as the mirror that’s gathering the light to then focus on the sensor array.
This is the biggest mirror scientists have ever sent into space. It is about 21 feet across, that’s about six times the size of the mirror that the Hubble Space Telescope relies on. And now the thing is, is that a mirror this large, it’s not just that it hasn’t been launched into space before, we don’t have a rocket that’s big enough to just carry it unfurled. In order to get this safely to its working position, which is about a million miles from earth, they had to actually design it in 18 separate segments, like segments of an orange, and they folded those up and packed them tightly together. And that’s what’s inside the fairing, the nose cone of the area on 5-rocket, which is currently poised to lift off from the Europe Spaceport in French Guiana.
Now that means when this instrument actually gets successfully out of the atmosphere into space, they are going to have to unfold this mirror on the fly, even as they chill it down to really, really, really, really horrifically cold 370 degrees or so below zero Fahrenheit. They are going to have to recalibrate these segments so that they can all act like one perfectly focused lens. And to do that, they’re going to have to align each mirror segment by remote control to about within one-10000th, the thickness of a human hair.

Zoe Thomas: The James Webb is named after a former NASA administrator, but this isn’t just a U.S. feed, is it?

Robert Lee Hotz: This project is a partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency, which is a consortium of about 11 to 14 countries, and the Canadian Space Agency. All three have made major contributions to this effort. It’s involved the work of some 10,000 people over the last decade, or it’s quite a collective effort.

Zoe Thomas: So we are getting a much larger global collaboration to see the history of the universe. That’s what we’re getting now?

Robert Lee Hotz: I think that’s exactly right. I mean the book of humankind is a book we all have to write and we are using our own collective ingenuity and innovative ability to write the newest chapters of it.

Zoe Thomas: All right. That’s WSJ science writer, Robert Lee Hotz. Lee, as always, thanks for joining us.

Robert Lee Hotz: Thank you very much for asking me to be here. It’s a pleasure.

Zoe Thomas: And that’s it for Tech News Briefing this week. We’ll be off tomorrow in observance of the Christmas holiday, but we’ll be back on Monday with something a little special. Until then, our producer is Julie Chang, our supervising producer is Chris Insley, our executive producer is Kateri Jochum and I’m your host, Zoe Thomas. Thanks for listening and have a happy holiday.

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