James Webb Space Telescope

Isaac Lavitt ’25

Contributor

After two decades and ten billion USD (12.7 billion CAD), on Christmas Day, 2021, the most advanced space telescope ever was launched into space. A joint operation between the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), the Hubble Space Telescope’s successor has the capability to view planets at all ends of the galaxy, the potential to observe stars at the beginning of the universe, and might answer the perpetual astronomical question: are we alone? However, with 12.7 billion CAD, you could give every person on the planet a Tim Hortons coffee. We must ask ourselves, “is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) truly worth it?”

To begin to answer this question, we must know what the telescope can do. With the ability to see infrared light, the James Webb Space Telescope can observe stars created during the Big Bang. When light travels extreme distances, it stretches into invisible infrared light, otherwise known as heat. The telescope can observe this heat and uncover the primordial past of the universe.

Surprisingly, the first exoplanet—a planet outside our solar system—was not discovered until 1992. Since then, we have discovered thousands, in every corner of the Milky Way Galaxy. We have always looked up to the stars, wondering if anyone was looking back at us. The JWST might answer that question. The Hubble Space Telescope looked out into the universe and saw the first earth-like worlds; in the coming decades, we may gaze at the stars and find life.

The JWST launched from French Guiana. After arriving at Lagrange 2, an area shielded from the sun by the earth, the telescope began to unfold its 18 gold-covered mirrors (each six and a half metres across) to observe the universe. Its tennis-court-sized sun shield protects it from the sun’s heat as its instruments observe our galaxy. As well as the heat the telescope must be able to withstand temperatures of -233 degrees Celsius, this apparatus will be able to operate for many decades.

Though a scientific marvel, 12.7 billion CAD is an unbelievable amount of money. Many people wonder if it would be better spent elsewhere. In the two decades of the JWST’s creation, how many lives could have been saved? How much medical research could have been conducted? How many people could the United States, Canada, and European Union have supported with this money? In sixth grade, I was asked by my teacher if the CSA should be defunded. That question has stuck with me for three years. Does space really matter if we have problems here on earth? Some will say it does, some will disagree. I am compelled to ask: do life’s answers live here, or out there?


Photo Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn