Why the James Webb Space Telescope Matters So Much

In a world that feels like it’s been dominated by story after story of harsh, negative news, the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, released earlier this week, mark a triumph of human innovation. As a science fiction author and professional scientist myself, it’s easy to geek out over this stuff. But it’s important to think about why this matters so much, not just to people like me, but to everyone.

The first image from the James Webb space telescope of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, 4.6 billion light years away shows thousands of galaxies in unprecedented detail. Released on July 11, 2022, this image contains some of the faintest images ever detected in the infrared spectrum. It even makes use of a technique referred to as “gravitational lensing” where the collective gravity of the galaxy cluster draws in light from even further away, allowing astronomers to collect light from when the universe was very young.
Credit:  NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI (link).

10 Billion Dollar Price Tag

The cost of the JWST is estimated at about $10 Billion. That’s billion… with a B. There’s a lot you could do with $10 billion of public funding… build new hospitals, fix up roads, give single person on the planet a buck and quarter. I mean, sure, the image up above looks pretty and everything. But 45% of the people in my home city don’t have a family physician. In fact, in 2011, the US Congress nearly scrapped the whole thing. So why should taxpayers (from the participating countries) foot such a hefty bill… just for a fancy telescope?

A Revolution in Our Understanding of the Universe

You only have to look at the success of JWST’s predecessor, the Hubble space telescope, to see how advanced scientific tools like this facilitate leaps and bounds in human knowledge. The Hubble was launched into orbit in 1990. At the time, no one had observed a single planet outside of our own solar system and no one had even heard of dark energy. Today, we have direct evidence of over 5000 exoplanets (largely thanks to the Kepler space telescope and many ground-based telescopes). Hubble was used to make the first measurements of the atmospheric conditions on an exoplanet and has provided the first visible-light images of an extra-solar planet. Before its launch, the age of the universe had a relatively high uncertainty… somewhere between 10 and 20 billion years. Now it’s far more precise… 13.8 billion years. And not only that, it has shown us evidence of an ever-expanding runaway universe driven by an unknown “dark energy.” Suffice it to say, the list of scientific contributions is long and continues to grow.

So if we now have a tool that is even more powerful, by a factor of 100, it will unlock even more secrets from the universe. We’ll learn more about how stars form, how galaxies interact, and we’ll gain even more insights into the nature of dark energy and dark matter.

Understanding these things is about far more than satisfying our innate curiosity about the universe and our place in it (although there is that too). But our understanding of the physics underlying the universe is based on models. The more extreme data we can collect, the better those models get. And all of our technological innovation is based to one degree on another on an accurate understanding of the fundamental physics of the universe. Even your phone’s global positioning system (GPS) wouldn’t work without an accurate understanding of general relativity.

Investment in Basic Science

Consider investment in basic science research from a financial point of view. While these things can be difficult to measure, numbers from the National Institute of Health (NIH) suggest that investment in basic science research provides a positive return of a whopping 43%! The Human Genome Project, for example, is estimated to have provided nearly $1 trillion of economic growth, a 178 fold return on investment! Every dollar $1.00 invested in basic science research by the NIH has stimulated an additional $8.38 of industrial investment in the following years.

The point is to consider the long game. Every coach worth their salt will tell you that the way for an athlete to get into the big leagues is to start early and built solid fundamental skills.

The System Works

During the launch of the JWST, the teams involved predicted 344 points of failure. The fact that it launched and deployed flawlessly is not only a testament to human ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness, but in a time that’s plagued by political cynicism, misinformation, and anti-science rhetoric, it provides a beacon of hope that collectively we (humans operating within publicly funded systems) can accomplish great things. We now live in an age where it’s now possible to study the chemical composition of an exoplanet that’s 1,150 light years away.

And we found water.

Using its Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) the JWST was about to measure light from the exoplanet WASP-96 over a period of 6.4 hours as it transited in front of its sun. The light collected gives astronomers a “transmission spectrum” and based on the relative dimming of light at specific wavelengths, the chemical composition of the exoplanet’s atmosphere can be determined because different chemicals will vary in how much light they absorb or scatter.
Credit:  NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI (link).