[Season 2 • Episode 20. Published 9/29/23.]
On Christmas Day, 2021, NASA launched the James Webb Space Telescope into orbit a million miles from Earth—a huge and insanely ambitious machine, billions of dollars over budget and 14 years past deadline. Now, as the telescope completes its first year of capturing astonishing images of the universe as it was just after the Big Bang, its creators discuss why so many things went right.
On Christmas Day, 2021, NASA launched the biggest, most powerful, most complex scientific instrument ever fired into space. The James Webb Space Telescope.
It’s three times bigger than the Hubble telescope, much too big to fit into a rocket. So NASA designed it to fold up into the tube of an existing rocket, like origami, and then unfold once it was in orbit, a million miles from earth.
Well, it’s now been one year since the Webb Telescope began sending pictures back; I thought we should check in.
POGUE: So how is the telescope doing?
RIGBY: Oh my gosh. The Webb telescope is doing better than it was supposed to, and better than honestly, I dared hope for. We are doing science and returning data that is deeper, sharper, clearer than we promised it would be.
I’m David Pogue. And this is “Unsung Science.”
Season 2, episode 20: How the Webb Telescope Sees Back in Time.
In 1990, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope. It had faced years of delays and cost overruns. But it proved the existence of black holes, calculated the age of the universe, and delivered astonishing views of deep space.
Six years later, NASA began planning a successor—a space telescope that would ultimately be three times bigger and 100 times more powerful than the Hubble, capable of seeing stars so distant, their light has been traveling for nearly 14 billion years—since just after the Big Bang.
It would be the biggest, most ambitious space observatory ever built: the James Webb Space Telescope.
They call it JWST for short, although it’s actually exactly the same number of syllables as “James Webb Space Telescope.” Anyway.
SCOTT: It’s got seven times the collecting area, a mirror which collects more light, to see things that are either dimmer or further away.
I first met Scott Willoughby just before Christmas 2021, when the Webb was scheduled to lift off. When he showed me a model of the thing—I mean, it looks really cool, but nothing like what we think of as a telescope.
Scott Willoughby was the Webb’s program manager. He works for Northrup Grumman, which NASA hired to do most of the design and construction. Building the Webb was his life’s work for 12 years
POGUE: Most people think of– a tube with little glass lenses. This thing is not a tube. And it doesn’t have glass lenses.
SCOTT: I took my dad to the World Science Festival in New York in June of 2010. We put a full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope in Battery Park in New York. It’s at the southern tip of Manhattan. ‘Cause we really just wanted people to come around and ask questions. And he looked at it, and he’s like, “That’s not a telescope.” (LAUGH) I’m like—“your son’s been leadin’ this for (LAUGH) a few years… Dad, I’m– I’m here to tell you that–” He goes, “Nope. That’s not a telescope.”
POGUE: Parents. Am I right?
SCOTT: Yeah. And he just, like, you know, he was lookin’ for somethin’ that a pirate would hold up, right, you know, in there. And (UNINTEL). So we had the argument out in there.
The Webb also works unlike any previous telescope.
POGUE: I think a lotta people have heard about the Hubble Telescope. How is the Webb different?
SCOTT: Webb’s eye is different than Hubble’s eye. Mostly, Hubble’s eye is in the optical range. Mostly, what Hubble sees is what we see.
Webb is trained to work in the infrared domain almost exclusively, and very far into it. So it– and it’s important, because a lot of the juicy information from the beginning of the universe has been shifted from the optical into the infrared range.
And with– you know, I w– in– in a whole science, you know, class, somebody could explain something called red shift. But it literally means–
POGUE: Actually, would you mind explaining red shift?
SCOTT: Yeah. So it’s– it’s– what folks know more in terms of sound. So when sound comes toward you, like a car on a street, you hear it sort of go, “Vrrr.” And when it goes away, it goes, “Vrrr.” The only reason that sounds like to you on the street corner is ‘cause when sound comes towards you, it compresses. And when it goes away from you, it stretches. Well, light in the universe? Same thing. So light that is, in effect, going away from you, and the universe is expanding—Hubble, right, told us that wavelengths that start this long, over time, stretch longer. So an optical wavelength stretches into the infrared. It’s called red shift.
So we’re designing an eye like– like infrared, you know, or like night vision goggles for the sky, where we’re gonna find infrared out in the universe. And the reason that it’s hard to find is because infrared is also heat. And you have to be colder than what you’re looking for. Otherwise, you see yourself. [CUT THE TWO LINES THAT ARE HERE] So Webb is also running at -400° Fahrenheit.
POGUE: Oh, man. Is that the reason it’s so far away?
SCOTT: So that’s the other difference from Hubble. Hubble is actually clo– we’re in Los Angeles. So for the viewers here, Hubble is closer to us when it goes over our head than San Francisco is to you in (LAUGH) your living room.
SCOTT: Yeah. Because it’s / literally only 300 miles– you know, just vertically off of the Earth. / But with that, since it’s so close to Earth, it stays warm. Right? ‘Cause Earth is warm. / For Webb to operate at -400° Fahrenheit, we send it four times further away than the moon. So we’re not 300 miles away. We’re one million miles away. /
So we’re goin’ four times further than the moon to this magical point, and let’s call it gravity stabilized, pseudo-stabilized point where the tug of the Earth, and the sun, and Mars, and everything out there is such that it will actually follow the Earth around the sun in a 365-day orbit, except a million miles further away. And with that, we can keep our optics– colder.
What he’s describing is LaGrange point 2.
That would be La Grange, as in the brilliant Italian-French mathematician Joe LaGrange. Or, as he was formally known, Joseph-Louis LaGrange.
He theorized in 1764 that there are certain points in space where an object would be in perfect equilibrium, balanced between the gravitational pulls of two celestial bodies, like the earth and the sun, and centrifugal force. Like, you wouldn’t need fuel to keep a satellite parked at that spot. And that’s where the Webb telescope sits: At LaGrange point 2. It’s always on the side of the earth away from the sun, so that sunlight never hits the telescope.
And by this time, you might be wondering: what’s the point of all this?
POGUE: What’s it trying to see? SCOTT: So the mission is wonderful, because I’m not even a scientist and I understand it. We’re gonna find out how the first stars formed. Because we have an eye that will see energy, right, that came outta there, a photon with a fingerprint of the day it left its star, just as if I left a fingerprint on that wall. And it’s so far away from us it hasn’t even reached us yet. And we put up this big optic, seven times bigger than Hubble. And like raindrops in a pool, we’re gonna collect photons that are 13 and a half billion years old. And with our instruments, we’re gonna break down that spectrum of light, and find out how the start of a Periodic Table, of how the elements that are in you, and me, and our planet, and everything else we know, came to be. That’s what Webb is going to do. And we’ve never been able to see it. Hubble’s not sensitive enough, ‘cause it’s more in the optical range and is warmer. So we have to leave our planet, go a million miles away, right, to find this. And that’s just one of our missions! (LAUGH)
POGUE: A lot of the NASA marketing material says this thing can see back in time, that it’s a time machine. How is it a time machine? It’s seeing distance, not time.
SCOTT: So even the speed of light is finite. It– it is only so fast. It takes eight minutes from starlight, our sun, to get 93 million miles. So, in effect, when we see our sun, it’s eight minutes old. I’m looking back in time, because I’m seeing the information as it was. We’re doin’ this on an epic scale. We’re looking at a sun that isn’t 93 million miles away, it’s 13.5 billion lightyears away. And then that photon just took that long, patiently traveling, so we can put up this, you know, big telescope and collect it. And in theory, you’re looking back in time. You’re looking at the history.
POGUE: Wow. Okay. So that’s one mission is to– to look back almost to the Big Bang. What– what are the other ones?
SCOTT: The telescope will also look at planets that are around other stars.
Oh yeah, baby. This is the cool part. This is where the Webb is going to look at exoplanets—that is, planets around other stars. Not just look at them—it can tell us what their atmospheres are like!
Not by sending some kind of jar with a lid to a planet millions of light-years away, although that would make a great Boy Scout merit-badge project. No, we do it more cleverly. Here’s how Jane Rigby explains it. She’s the JWST’s chief scientist.
RIGBY: A lot of the work that we’re doing with exoplanets is transit spectroscopy, where we stare at a — a distant star, and when a planet goes in front of that star, gets a little bit dimmer because that— the planet moves in front. Right? And by analyzing how the rainbow changes when the planet is in front of the star, versus not in front of the star, and taking the difference of those two rainbows, we can tell you what the atmosphere of that planet is like.
Anyway. The point is, the Webb telescope is super duper cold. Not much warmer than absolute zero.
Now, remember, infrared is a form of heat. So any warmth from the sun and the earth would blind this telescope to distant starlight. To illustrate how they protect against that problem, Willoughby showed me a model of the telescope.
DP: So this is the telescope.
SCOTT: A teeny one.
DP: Not actual size.
The main mirror looks like a golden honeycomb, made up of 18 big hexagons arrayed more or less as a disc.
SCOTT: Every one of these mirrors has a motor. So we can move ‘em, you, in and out, and we can adjust ‘em. So in the end they all look like one mirror segment to the universe.
POGUE: Was it made golden for looks?
SCOTT: It was not. (LAUGH) That’s a great question. For Webb, gold reflects infrared.
This giant lens focuses the light it collects onto a very small second mirror, held in place by three struts about 23 feet away. This secondary mirror bounces the light back through a hole in the main mirror, and on into the scientific instruments behind it.
But remember: Heat blinds the telescope—and the sun and the earth are both constant sources of heat.
SCOTT: So we have to block out any shred of that sun by deploying a big sun shield. A big– you know, umbrella, effectively.
And sure enough: Beneath the huge golden honeycomb is a huge heat barrier the size of a tennis court. Five layers of Mylar, each one the thickness of a human hair. Mylar is that shiny silver plastic stuff they make novelty helium balloons out of.
POGUE: So all this is to just separate the whole thing into a cold side from the hot side?
SCOTT: Correct. That cold side? Minus 400° Fahrenheit. The hot side? About plus 200° Fahrenheit. Sunlight will never touch these mirrors as they get on orbit.
Now, if you’re doing the math in your head, you might be going: “The size of a tennis court? How are they gonna fit that into a rocket?”
Exactly! And now we’ve arrived at the hardest part of all. This telescope is three stories tall and 70 feet wide—way too big to fit into any existing rocket. NASA’s solution? Fold it up, like origami.
SCOTT: So this folds along here. And along here. Those three fold back. And those three fold back.
POGUE: They fold–
SCOTT: Yeah. So like ears. So this wing’ll deploy, this wing. And this is actually stowed up and over.
POGUE: This is the part that worries me, as a layperson. I mean, how complex is this unfolding process?
SCOTT: It’s good to be worried. They have things that are called single-point failures. Right? This has to move this way and there’s only one of ‘em. And Webb has over 300 of those.
POGUE: 300 hundred things that have to go exactly right?
SCOTT: Correct. Yeah.
If one of those 300 points of failure…failed, then NASA would have itself a $10 billion piece of space junk.
SCOTT: So what do ya do with those? You just– you test ‘em to greater extremes than they’ll ever see. If it’s gotta be this cold and this warm, we test it this cold and this warm. If it’s gotta be shaken like this, we shake it like this.
RIGBY: We vibrated it. We fake the violence of a launch, the noise of a launch, right? It’s like 140 decibels. So they have these giant speakers that I really want to have, like, can they play, like, some music I actually like? Um, but they play the noise of a launch. Um, they — they shake. They take it — we took the whole telescope on a shaker table, and we shook it.
POGUE: I mean, it’s a bunch of pulleys and cables to unfold that.
RIGBY: Yeah, a good fraction of a kilometer of cabling. Yes.
POGUE: That’s, like, asking for trouble. (LAUGHS)
RIGBY: Multiples motors, tons of pulleys. It actually all looks a little like, um, the rigging of a sailboat. Like, they had binders and binders of plans. I mean like a couple bookshelves of plans. “What if this goes wrong? What if this goes wrong? This is how we do it.” They had the most complicated flow charts I’ve ever seen.
Now, before launch, the Webb project had its critics. It was way over budget. It was way delayed—the original launch date was in 2007! So plenty of people probably muttered, “Oh, those incompetent government bureaucrats! They can’t do anything on time and on budget.”
But it’s a little more complicated than that. The plan was for this machine to sit a million miles from earth—four times as far as the moon. We’ve never sent astronauts that far. In other words, if something does go wrong, we can’t exactly send a repair crew, like we did with the Hubble Telescope in in 1993.
So NASA had no choice but to do all that testing while it was still on the ground.
RIGBY: Not all of those tests went great. We did a deployment test where we deployed this whole sun shield, right? And we — we unfolded it on the ground as it was going to unfold in space. And they didn’t work! But that’s how we caught the errors before we sent the thing up into space.
But the thing is…every time a test on earth reveals a flaw, they have to fix the flaw and then redo the tests. And that takes time and takes money. There’s just no choice. I’d argue that the time and money overruns weren’t incompetence—they were kind of just the opposite. It’s methodical and careful, because you’ve only got one shot at this thing.
You’re building a one-off, one-of-a-kind machine, made of folding parts and hinges and cables—you just can’t predict the timeline or the cost when you’re starting out.
POGUE: You can’t iterate on this thing.
SCOTT: We (LAUGH)– we’re building one thing for 19 years. And they ask, “How can you build somethin’ for 19 years and have it be relevant?” Well, first of all, we’re lookin’ for light that’s 13.5 billion years old, so another few years won’t make a difference. (LAUGH) It’s still gonna be there.
In the end, NASA settled on a launch date: Christmas Day, 2021. From a launch pad in French Guiana, aboard a French rocket called Ariane 5.
POGUE: So at this point, days away from the launch, how confident are you?
SCOTT: Confidence is built, to me, out of, “Did we do everything that we could possibly have done?” I can confidently say we did everything that we needed to do. We took every piece of it and we did the best we absolutely, possibly could.
Willoughby knew that once the Webb was in space, he’d have to wait 29 days to find out if the unfolding worked, and then five months for the telescope to calibrate and cool down.
SCOTT: So in the end, it takes us a half a year before you’ll be reporting on some image that humankind has never seen before in our lives.
POGUE: And is that the point where you can finally sleep at night?
SCOTT: I’ll feel a lot better then. (LAUGH)
Well…guess what? It’s coming up on two years since that launch. That time has come and gone. We now know whether the telescope unfolded smoothly without botching up. Whether it reached its target spot a million miles away. Whether that $10 billion was well spent. Whether Scott Willoughby is getting any sleep.
And after the ad break, you’ll know, too.
Well, let’s put you out of your suspense misery: The Webb Telescope took off flawlessly on Christmas Day 2021.
Audio from the launch
Guy: Main engine start. And liftoff! Décollage—liftoff! From a tropical rainforest to the edge of time itself, James Webb begins a voyage back to the birth of the universe.
To get the details, I Zoomed up my old pal, Scott Willoughby, now a year and a half after our first interview.
POGUE: Scott Willoughby. How are you doing, man?
SCOTT: I am doing great.
POGUE: Yeah, you are. When we—when we last spoke, it was ten days to launch. And our conversation was full of statements like, ‘Well, six months from now, we’ll know.’ So—do we know?
SCOTT: We absolutely know.
POGUE: Let’s go to the day of the launch. You were there?
SCOTT: Yeah, I was. I was in French Guiana.
POGUE: I’m trying to figure out what the team who put this thing together must have felt upon launch. Because it’s exciting, but it doesn’t answer any of the ‘will it work’ questions.
SCOTT: And that’s exactly—I mean, I’ve actually struggled with the word to describe an incredible feeling of elation, but not wanting to spike the ball on the five yard line, right? The game isn’t over. You know, we’re in the, we’re in the first quarter, right?
So we spent 20 years, and especially the last several years, treating this thing like a Fabergé egg, right? And now here it is, you know, on a rocket, about to get lit, right, below, this explosion, and then, you know, launched into space, that journey through Earth’s atmosphere.
And that emotion was—you know, I compare it to, you know, watching your kids leave for school and knowing that, you know, they’re not coming back in the house, you know, as a kid again, right? it’s a tear-jerker kind of thing because you’re literally watching it drift away.
POGUE: Here’s the big one for me—what made this an amazing story for me is the difficulty of the engineering involved—according to you and NASA, there were over 300 points of failure, as they say, which made it sound super risky and super failure-possible. And it turns out, as far as I know, everything went really well. None of those failures failed. Which makes me ask, was it really that dramatic and risky, or was some of that heightened to make it seem exciting?
SCOTT: It was not heightened. As a matter of fact, I never thought we described well enough, actually, how hard this was, so people really had that appreciation.
So there were 344 things had to operate successfully. That mirror deployment—if it doesn’t come out, the mission is over. It has hinges. And if the hinge gets stuck, right, the boom doesn’t go out. So there’s multiple hinges and, and, and even when it gets out there, eventually we had to drive the mirror into its position where it is, and moments like that were insanely tense.
POGUE: Wow. Did anything go wrong?
SCOTT: There were some long days that were, you know, edge-of-your-seat exhausting, you know. The covers that protected our sunshield membranes. It’s got 90 cables and it had 107 release devices and telescopic booms, right? Boom, boom, boom. Well, when those covers first got fired to roll back, we didn’t see the immediate verification that they had completely rolled. And then you don’t know if that’s because they’re stuck—because we can’t look at it—you know, or did they just roll maybe to a slightly different position, right?
I won’t keep you on the edge of your seat—they were still good—but it was different. And that day started at five in the morning on December 31st and finished at 11:55 p.m., you know, literally 5 minutes before New Year’s Eve in Baltimore, when we finally knew it all worked on, on those particular steps, because we took our time.
And at 11:55 p.m., I went home. I got on the phone with my daughters. I said, “Happy New Year’s.” They’re like, “where are you going to party, Dad?” I said, “I’m going to sleep.”
On day 3 after launch, the telescope passed the moon’s orbit. On Day 7, the sunshield finished unfurling. On Day 13, the main mirror began to unfold. On Day 20, NASA began the delicate process of adjusting the 18 hexagonal mirrors into precise shape and position, using the seven motors behind each one.
And on Day 30, with a few short spurts from its thrusters, the Webb Telescope coasted to a stop at LaGrange point 2. “Home, home on Lagrange,” NASA tweeted. Of course they did.
And on Day 48, Webb sent back its first picture. Kinda blurry, out of focus, but definitely a picture of stars.
But then, on Day 165—that would be June 8, 2022—the telescope delivered the kind of news we didn’t want to hear.
GUY: Just seven months into the mission, the $10 billion device has already sustained irreversible damage. A tiny, but incredibly fast-moving space rock slammed into one of the telescope’s 18 gold-plated mirrors, leaving a small but significant dent.
POGUE: That must have been a scary day.
SCOTT: We prepare for micrometeorites. This wasn’t a surprise to us. A lot of the articles came out and intimated it like there was this big shock. But in this particular case, the size of the micrometeorite was bigger than our statistics had thought, and bigger— like, you know, I don’t know the fraction of a grain of sand to a full grain of sand. I mean, we’re not talking bigger, like a rock; we’re still talking small.
But they travel at upwards of 17,000 miles an hour. So, you know, if I shot a 17,000 mile an hour grain of sand at you, it’s going to hurt, right? It leaves a little, you know, mark behind where it hits. But we have an optic seven times bigger than Hubble, so precisely aligned that its surface accuracy is so that almost anywhere you hit, every photon will come back. It has such a perfect curvature.
So this small thing is inconsequential. There is zero impact to science. It was a lot sexier to say, “Webb’s got, you know, bashed by a micrometeorite and it’s damaged,” and et cetera. And it’s like, “Yeah, it got hit, but it’s good.”
POGUE: Are you impugning the media, sir?
SCOTT: No, no, no, no, no.
And then, on July 11, 2022, NASA released the first science-usable photograph taken by the telescope. Actually, the President released it, on a live broadcast from the White House.
BIDEN: That’s who we are as a nation: a nation of possibilities. And now let’s take a look at the very first image from this miraculous telescope. (Applause.)
The picture shows a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. It’s a very cool photo—but the next day, NASA released four more pictures, and they were incredible. The Southern Ring nebula. Stephan’s Quintet, a collection of five galaxies 290 million light-years away. And a breathtaking shot of the Carina Nebula, a massive cloud of gas and dust where some stars are forming and others are dying.
POGUE: I remember reading, “Stephan’s Quintet is 290 million light years away.” 290 million light years awavy?! I mean, it shouldn’t be possible.
SCOTT: And we’re seeing it in fine detail—like, I mean, literally, like, you know, in—as, as if we were kind of looking at something across our living room.
The fifth image wasn’t a photo at all. It was a spectroscopy graph of the elements in the atmosphere of a hot, puffy gas-giant exoplanet called WASP-96 b. The graph told us that there’s water in its atmosphere.
SCOTT: To me, it was—it was mind-blowing, because they’re showing that we can detect signs of elements in an atmosphere of another planet. I mean, humankind has now created an instrument that can do that.
If this podcast weren’t an audio medium, this is the part where I’d show you some of these pictures, and you’d be like, “whoaaa.” I mean, it’s easy enough to find ‘em—just Google “webb telescope photos.”
Or maybe you saw ‘em when they came out. I mean, it was global news.
SCOTT: When the president released the science—not only that, Google changes Doodle. The Empire State Building turned gold. The headlines of almost every major, you know, newspaper had the images. Piccadilly Square in London, Times Square in New York—I mean, the, the world celebrated those first science images from old school to new school, right? That day just floored me. I wouldn’t have ever thought that it would happen like that. Just floored me. Absolutely.
POGUE: The public getting interested in, in space and time. I mean that’s—that doesn’t happen often.
SCOTT: No. I will argue with anyone until the end of my time. What, this century, has had such a big impact positively? Tell me the last good thing that hit like that. I think you got to go back a century.
Of course, what’s missing from most of the discussion about these images is that—well, they don’t actually look like they look. I mean, if you were out there in space, you would just see blackness. Remember, the Webb detects infrared light, which we can’t see, at least without night-vision goggles. NASA has tweaked the photos to make them visible to our pathetic and limited eyes.
RIGBY: Our eyes see a narrow range of light that the sun makes a lot of, and that is useful for, like, detecting lions from grass. Right? But there are animals on earth that can see bluer or redder than our eyes. Bees can see in the blue because flowers, light up really bright in the blue and ultraviolet. Pit vipers can see more in the infrared, right?
RIGBY: That’s how they find their prey. They look for the warm thing. Right? So different animals on earth have made different eyeballs, different detectors that are optimized for different purposes. The Webb telescope is an infrared telescope, OK? At the edge of its range, it can see the same light that you can see, but then it goes redder past what to your eye is invisible. But that’s not that there’s anything weird about that light. It’s just a limitation of our eyes. And so just like soldiers use infrared vision at night to compensate for, you know, to get powers their own eyes don’t have, it’s the same thing. We’re using technology to look at light that is invisible to our eyes, but that is still out there.
For Webb, when we get an image, it’s grayscale, it’s coming in as ones and zeros. That’s just what the detector saw.
But the stunning pictures we see online are definitely not grayscale. They’re incredibly beautiful color photos. And for that, we have Joe DePasquale and Alyssa Pagan to thank. Their job descriptions are NASA science visuals developers.
JOE: That means that I take the data from the telescope, and work with data from different filters of the telescope to compose color images that we then use for press releases.
POGUE: Excellent. And general human inspiration.
POGUE: Okay. So, when — when we see these stunning Webb Telescope photos, they’ve come from you two.
JOE: Most of them have. Yes.
POGUE: And — and they didn’t look like that in outer space.
JOE: That’s right. So that question actually comes up a lot: “Is what Webb sees real?” And absolutely yes, it is real. These are real objects in space, and Webb is observing them in infrared wavelengths, which our eyes are not sensitive to. And so, it’s our job to be able to translate that light into something that our eyes can see.
We’re taking images that Webb has — has captured in different wavelengths and then assigning colors to them according to their wavelengths. So, the longest wavelengths are red. The shortest wavelengths are blue. And the things in between are green. And then, that color all combines together to create these color images.
POGUE: Okay. And is that a standard astronomical color scheme? Or does China use mauve for short wavelengths, you know, like —
ALYSSA: No. It’s pretty standard, and it’s because that’s the way that we see light, and this is what we think is the truest representation of what we could possibly see –if we could see an infrared light.
POGUE: If you were a — that viper that can be seen from that. Yeah.
POGUE: Does red equal longer wavelengths in our visible spectrum?
POGUE: Oh. So, you’re just — you’re just shrinking the range so that we can see it.
Ever since, the Webb has been delivering one discovery after another. Galaxies so old, they formed only 200 million years after the Big Bang. If the history of the universe were a year long, those galaxies would have formed on January fifth.
Then JWST found water around a strange comet. Then soot-like molecules in a galaxy more than 12 billion light-years away. Then 717 new galaxies that nobody had ever seen before. Then a supermassive black hole, 9 million times more massive than our sun.
And on, and on, and on. By the end of its first year of operation, scientists had published over 750 papers based on Webb data. Here’s Jane Rigby, the Webb’s chief scientist.
RIGBY: Oh my gosh. The Webb telescope is doing better than it was supposed to and better than honestly, I dared hope for. Across the board, our, uh, pictures are sharper and clearer because the telescope — the mirrors are working even better together than we, uh, designed them to, returning data that is deeper, sharper, clearer than we promised it would be.
None of us have lived so charmed a life that we deserve this. Right? It’s such a joy that this telescope is working so well. The serious part of that is because it was built really well by the engineers that designed and constructed it. But it is, oh my gosh. It’s just such a joy to work with.
POGUE: All right. So approaching two years out there. Have we learned anything cool and layperson friendly?
RIGBY: Sure. The elevator pitch for the Webb Telescope was to study — to get the baby pictures of the universe, right? To study galaxies in the process of formation. And we have delivered exactly what we promised on that topic. We have gone from, you know, with Hubble, we had a few candidates to be these very, very distant galaxies. With Webb, we’re finding hundreds in just dozens of hours. It’s a little embarrassing how good this telescope is for this kind of science.
What have we learned? We’ve been able to see that, um, in the first billion years of the universe’s life, galaxies formed earlier than we expected. They, uh, were forming stars in these extreme bursts of star formation that are unlike anything in the nearby universe where they’re forming stars at a rate like a thousand times what — what our own Milky way can do.
We’ve gone from basically ignorance about what that first billion years of the universe was like to having it in crisp high definition.
Originally, NASA sold Congress on the idea of funding the Webb telescope with the promise that it would be fully operational for ten years. Ten years of amazing discoveries. After that, it would run out of fuel for making little adjustments in its position and angle.
But even here, the JWST wanted to deliver one last chunk of happy news.
SCOTT: So the two most important things for Webb that were going to consume fuel early on was when the launch vehicle left us and went to orbit, if it’s tilted a little high or lower left or right, we would have to fire our own engines and correct ourselves, right?
But that rocket tipoff was near perfect. I mean, for all intents and purposes, it was perfect. So we never had to turn our rocket engines on to correct for what’s called tip off. So immediately, that fuel is used for longer mission life, right?
And then subsequently, we use the rockets on our vehicle to get us a million miles out. So we, we fired mid-course corrections, they were called—MCCs, mid-course corrections—and we fired those. The biggest one occurred 12 hours after launch. We did a perfect midcourse correction. Between those two things, we went from a ten-year to a over 20-year mission life.
POGUE: What? That’s amazing. You guys must have had so many beer bashes in the last few months. I mean, one thing after another went right, right? I mean…
SCOTT: Yes, yes.
POGUE: For something this complex…I don’t get it.
SCOTT: We deserved it. We deserved it, David—after 20 years, we deserve that.
For Scott Willoughby, the Webb’s success has, of course, been incredibly gratifying. But he can’t shed the feeling that he’s launched a child into the world, knowing that his daily life with her is over.
POGUE: Astronauts talk about when they come back from, from a mission in space—they come back to Earth—sometimes there’s a letdown. You know, you’ve been pushing so hard against something and then that resistance is gone and it’s hard to stay perky. Did that happen to you once this thing was finally—even though it was a giant success—? I mean, you no longer have it to look forward to.
SCOTT: It’s—it absolutely is. Like, if this was when Webb was going on, I could just walk up to 100 engineers on any given day. My favorite thing was to walk to people’s offices. And I went from a team of 750 to 0. I’m kind of the coach now, right? I went from the field to the dugout. There’s those moments where it does feel like—I’d say it’s like a void.
I mean, Webb’s still there. Heck, I’m reading about it in the newspapers. Right? So there’s joy, but there’s not the same, reporting to Congress and reporting up to, you know, leadership at NASA and my own leadership and, and dealing with issues, right, while you’re in the middle of it.
And when that’s all gone, I do miss the, the game being dialed up that high.
POGUE: Wow. Well, congratulations on having the thing freakin’ work. It was—it’s such an ambitious thing with so many things that could go wrong. And they didn’t. I’m just thunderstruck. And you led it. SCOTT: You bring back a feeling in me that I don’t think will ever go away. I have a feeling this sensation is going to be every bit, as, you know, all other major excitements that you think of—you know, life, and children being born, and marriages, or winning my high school football league championship, you know—all of those things, you can kind of feel the feeling again once you get nostalgic about it. And it just—so that’s going to live forever.