For me, Robert Browning’s declaration that “man’s reach should exceed his grasp” sums up the thrill of stargazing and the sense of wonder that fills novice astronomers as well as the professionals at the controls of a broad spectrum of telescopes around the world. Each knows that for all one learns and for all one sees, there is always more.
In December NASA, with help from the European and Canadian Space Agencies, will launch a massive, new telescope that will look deeper and see more of the sky than anything that has come before it. The James Webb Space Telescope, using infrared technology, will challenge Browning’s famous quote. I suspect though, that with every new revelation, another question and another theory will be proposed that will convince us to continue to extend our reach even as we grasp and understand more and more about how everything began.
From its orbit in space, Webb’s huge primary mirror will capture enough light to see stars and galaxies that formed over 13 billion years ago. It will be able to look through the dust that surrounds the birth of stars, allowing us to see the process as it unfolds. Webb will also peer into and analyze the atmospheres of planets that exist outside of our own solar system. The chemical structures it finds may give clues as to whether life may exist elsewhere.
As miraculous as the Hubble Telescope has been, Webb will be Hubble on steroids.
None of this comes cheap. Delays have pushed back the launch for many years. The cost has jumped to nearly $10 billion. With so much needed right now for so many things, it’s right to question whether this is a priority we can afford.
Throughout the 1960s, the U.S. raced to perfect a system that would get us to the surface of the moon. Those were years during which we spent enormous sums to fight a war in Vietnam. It was also a time when so many knew that we needed to spend even more in a fight against poverty. The debate raged about how to justify a trip to the moon or a war in Asia when too many in our own cities barely had enough to survive.
So, here we are more than a half century later with the same debate. How should we spend our money? How do we put a value on space exploration? How do we choose between lengthening our reach, while ensuring that every grasp right here on Earth is fruitful?
I’ve marveled at the night sky and I’ve also been in homes where children slept on the floor and had to run to neighbors to ask for food. For those without a blanket or a bowl of cereal, there is little time or energy to contemplate the origins of life. But, what is not debatable is that we’re at our best when we find a way to feed the hungry and also feed our imagination. Both are necessities.
Webb will begin its journey on December 18. In the meantime, the skies have cleared and the temperature has dropped. For the past month, Venus, Saturn and Jupiter have shared their beauty with us. Throughout October, Cassiopeia, the Queen, will reign nearly directly overhead, astride a throne taking the shape of a flattened “W” that points to the Princess Andromeda.
Far beyond these planets and constellations are the mysteries that Webb may uncover. If we can build machines like Webb that seek to solve mysteries billions of light years away, we should be able to solve the problems of everyday life. I think that’s what Browning had in mind.
For an exhaustive overview of the Webb Space Telescope go to jwst.nasa.gov