Mirror Image

Hubble’s replacement is about to change our understanding of the universe.

Just over 10 years late and 10 times over its original $1 billion estimated price tag, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) finally launched on Christmas Day 2021, and it’s poised to transform astronomy forever. Unfurled, the joint project between NASA, the European and Canadian space agencies, and others is the size of a tennis court, and its honeycombed main mirror—designed and built by Westminster’s Ball Corporation—is 21 feet in diameter, about 13 feet wider than Hubble’s. Some astronomers will use JWST to peer back in time, while others, such as Meredith MacGregor, an assistant professor at CU Boulder, plan to use it to search for extraterrestrial life. As amazing as that sounds, she says she can’t even imagine some of the revolutionary things the telescope will discover: “It’s just completely unlike anything we’ve ever built before.”

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Orbital Mechanics: Unlike Hubble, JWST isn’t in low Earth orbit. Instead, it circles Lagrange Point Two (L2), a spot four times farther away than the moon and one of a few special locations in space where the gravity from the sun and the Earth equal the force needed to keep the telescope moving in sync with its home planet.

Redshift: The expansion of the universe stretches out light waves as they move through space, turning blues into reds and, eventually, infrared, so JWST is built to see the latter. And because that light has been traveling for billions of years to reach JWST, the telescope will actually be looking deep into the past. “Hopefully, it will find some really interesting things to say about the early days of our universe,” MacGregor says.

(Not So) Close Encounters: JWST will be able to measure the composition of exoplanet atmospheres thanks to a spectrometer that can identify the specific wavelengths of light emitted by molecules such as oxygen and methane. “Once you understand that,” MacGregor says, “you can start to look for biosignatures, things that indicate there might be life there.”

Delivering the Goods: “We don’t have a rocket big enough to stick a [21-foot-wide] telescope in straight up,” MacGregor says. Instead, JWST was folded like a beach chair, and it took months to align each gold-plated mirror segment after launch.

Hot and Cold: These kitelike sheets shield JWST’s mirror from the infrared radiation—aka heat—given off by other celestial bodies. The hot side will be a scorching 185 degrees Fahrenheit. The cold side? Negative 388.

Competitive Edge: Once JWST is fully operational, which could happen as early as this month, its first mission will be gathering data that the entire astronomical community wants to get its hands on. After that, anyone can write a proposal, and an international committee of scientists will decide who gets time on the machine. “Hubble is so in demand,” MacGregor says, “that even after 30 years, for every one hour of operation there are 12 hours of proposed observations.”


Life On Mars

Landing humans on the Red Planet is in the cards—just not anytime soon.

There’s a perception that Mars is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the moon, says Jack Burns, a professor of astrophysics at CU Boulder. In fact, in 2021, SpaceX’s Elon Musk told Time that he’d be surprised if his company weren’t landing humans on the planet by 2026. “It’s like, What have you been smoking?” Burns says. The hurdles are myriad. A trip to the moon takes three to five days. Mars takes eight to nine months with current technology, and once you’re there, you’re there for a minimum of a year until the planetary orbits align to make a return trip possible. “So you’re in for a two-and-a-half to three-year mission right out of the gate,” Burns says. That timeline amplifies problems we don’t fully understand, much less have solutions for, such as how to protect astronauts from radiation both in flight and on the planet’s surface and how the body will react to life in Mars’ low-gravity environment as opposed to the microgravity on the International Space Station. NASA’s Artemis mission to the moon will help answer many of these questions, but Burns suspects it’s going to take a coalition of national space agencies to finally make a manned Mars mission happen. “We’ll get there,” he says, “but it’s going to be more like the middle of the century.”


Rock Stars

Exploring the solar system will require cheap(er) rocket fuel, so Colorado School of Mines plans to help manufacture it on the moon.

Another way Artemis’ lunar mission will help us get to Mars? Water. Or, more precisely, the hydrogen and oxygen atoms water contains that can be used to make rocket fuel. “Estimates are anywhere from a hundred million to a billion metric tons of water are on the moon,” says Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at Colorado School of Mines. “That is about the equivalent of two Lake Dillons. That’s not much water on Earth, but it’s enough to refuel thousands upon thousands of rockets.”

Turning the moon into a low-gravity Circle K could significantly reduce the cost to reach Mars and help humanity send missions deeper into the solar system. There are still questions, though. Two critical ones: Where is the water, and in what form is it to be found? Mines is positioning itself to help find the answers.

The school made headlines when it announced the world’s first space resources graduate program in 2018. The response was so strong that it added an undergraduate minor in fall 2021. Harvesting resources in space, including mining water on the moon, isn’t a purely technical challenge, so the school is training students in everything from engineering to space law and policy. “We are at the start of a completely new era,” Abbud-Madrid says, “so we might as well start right. Let’s do it fair. Let’s do it sustainably and responsibly.” And we’d better do it now, because if his predictions for the future of space mining are correct, the future is nearly here.

Mid-2020s

Various national governments and private companies such as Lunar Outpost will begin prospecting for resources—including water—on the moon.

Early 2030s

Business plans and economic models for the profitable extraction of resources will be developed using the prospectors’ data.

Late 2030s

Robots will begin harvesting material and converting it into useful products, such as fuel and potable water.

2040s to 2070s

Large-scale industrial mining operations will be in place on the moon and possibly even on Mars and in the asteroid belt.

Nicholas Hunt
Nicholas Hunt

Nicholas writes and edits the Compass, Adventure, and Culture sections of 5280 and writes for 5280.com.