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What the Devil won't tell you

Pride of Arizona: Claiming the James Webb Space Telescope as Tucson's own

Cue "Thus Spake Zarathustra" because the James Webb Space Telescope is about to start gathering usable data to the horns and drums of Strauss.

It's looking like two, three, months from now that the JWST's long journey into the good night will finally lead to the promised discovery.

Praise the Lord and pass the spectrometer.

Every time it beams an image back to Earth over the next decade or more, Tucsonans can say "we did that." OK, fine. It's not exactly how it works. Technically the project is a decades-long collaboration among NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, a university in British Columbia and some Scots in Edinburgh. Good for them. 

Only one institution is responsible for multiple instruments on a telescope that carries four. That's the University of Arizona. For bar bets and bragging rights, this puppy is ours. Just stamp Wilbur Wildcat's face on the Webb sunshield and be done with it.

Eat our intergalactic dust, Harvard Yard. Are you enjoying the view from the cheap seats, Cambridge? Arizona State? Just stop. Go back to being a teacher's college. Astrophysics is about to bear down and revolutionize in red and blue (or infra-red and blue).

I'm claiming the Webb for the Old Pueblo. The U of A team responsible for key parts of Webb are in no way making that claim. They are dutiful team players and act accordingly because that's what professionals do.

Screw it. I'm sick of my town being described in travel articles as "sleepy." The U of A "owns" a hell of a lot more of Webb than Elon Musk's 9 percent stake of Twitter. He's about to be the owner as humanity descends into a bird-shaped hellscape.

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Tucson House

The names to know on campus are Marcia and George. They are the wife-and-husband team here in town who led the design of the Near-Infrared and Mid-Infrared cameras on the telescope. Webb has four imaging devices. Two come from one household in Tucson.

Marcia Rieke and I got into an e-mail exchange this week where in a wild display of humility she thanked me for my interest in her little project revolutionizing astrophysics (yeah, not a problem, professor). 

She took part in a teleconference with science media this week and it was long on tech geekery and short on "why this matters." In the defense of all involved, they've known for years why the Webb scope matters.

Rieke can rattle off the expected but made a point about the unexpected. 

"Every time we make this big a leap in observing capability, astronomers find something unexpected and which changes how we view the universe and our place in it," she said. "Don't know now what this might be, but stay tuned."

Astronomers don't know what they'll find when they start shining lights and kicking stuff over. That's not the part that wins them the funding, but I suspect it's what most excites researchers.

Infrared — the way of the future

What they know they can get is still pretty cool.

Webb can see further and better into the past than any other telescope and it can pick up atmospheric elements of exoplanets a heck of a lot better and faster than has been done to date.

Why? Welcome to the marvel of infrared.

Say someone wants to see back in time, back to the first formed galaxies so far away from Earth that humans can only see them in the form they took at the moment their light left 100 million years ago.

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The most distant galaxies can't be seen with visible light. Space itself is warping and shifting the light from the visible part of the spectrum to the infra-red part of the spectrum. These galaxies are invisible in the light that human eyes are evolved to detect.  

Let's take another example: Suppose researchers want to discover the atmospheric composition of planets orbiting other stars. The stars rays actually carry teeny-tiny traces of exoplanet's atmospheres with them and can be measured on Earth but only in the infrared.

So scientists can look look for planets that are sending signals declaring themselves to be made of an atmosphere similar to Earth. 

Also, the JWST can gather spectroscopy on multiple planets at a time for rapid exploration.

Here's another example of what Webb will do. Infrared waves have a longer wavelength so they can move through interstellar dust a lot easier than visible light rays. Remember that pretty famous shot by the Hubble Space Telescope of the towering dust columns where stars were being born? 

All we saw was the dust and not the birth of the stars themselves because the "dust" (such as it is) blocked out visible rays. Infrared can pierce the dusty veil so humanity can actually see what the dust is hiding and maybe watch stars being born.

So infrared is fantastic for this kind of astronomy.

That part of the spectrum is incredibly sensitive to heat. Right now, the U.S. military has satellites that can stare down at Russian and Chinese nuclear missile fields. Infrared sensors will notice a launch because sensors from space can detect the heat off ICBM rockets igniting. Imagine the effect of a Wal-Mart parking lot or a heating atmosphere. 

Earth is not a great place to get an infrared signal from space. Space itself has problems. The Hubble can just orbit 400 miles above the Earth's surface, point itself toward the inky black of space and start gathering visible light.

The  Webb had to travel to a LaGrange point 900,000 miles from Earth, in part, to escape Earth's heat signature. Then it has another problem — the Sun. The sun's heat would absolutely blind the telescope. So scientists had to build a heat shield to block the sun's heat. The sun side of the shield is 200 degrees. The other side is near absolute zero. The thickness of the shield is five strands of hair.

Remember that the next time someone says "scientists don't really know anything." Ask the skeptic to pull off that kind of rapid-cooling on his F-150. Actually, don't. They'll just call you a fool for believing the telescope got launched in the first place. Conspiracy theories facilitate the dual state of complete ignorance and total expertise.

I digress.

Infrared astronomy can be done from Earth but with much lower quality. 

In the 2000s, the Spitzer Space Telescope had been been deployed and it helped but its resolution is far lower-quality than Webb's. It also ran out of coolant in 2010 and is degrading.

Seats in the upright position

So scientists are absolutely stoked. Are they too stoked?

What struck me about the call is how confident the team was about the telescope's impending start-date.

As great as scientists are at a lot of stuff, their space exploits have been problematic. Hubble required a fix almost on Day One. A Mars rover crashed into the planet's red dust in part because of a mix up between feet and metric. Webb itself was originally planned for launch in 2003, that got pushed to 2007, delayed to 2010, rescheduled to 2013, neverminded to 2015, LaGuardia-ed to 2018, 86-ed until 2020 and then COVID struck and was pushed to Halloween 2021 before finally being shot into space on Christmas.

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Webb has been launched. It's in position at a Lagrange Point about a million miles from Earth. It's mirrors are unfolded. The reflectors are aligned. It's taking pictures and sending them back to Earth. The telescope is 80 percent of the way to "all systems go." Can't the last 20 percent prove catastrophically problematic? Did they mix up Kelvin and Fahrenheit?

Rieke confirmed my hunch that the hard part is over and Webb has exceeded expectations. It's as if the engine is purring, the transmission works and now it's time to fine-tune with some road trip music and getting the seat adjusted just right.

"We are now checking that all the details are correct, and that we have things tuned up for best performance," Rieke said.

This summer, maybe, Webb will go fully operational and scope time will start to be allocated to researchers around the world. Tucson says "you're welcome."

What's in it for me? 

For some of us discovery itself is enough. 

Inevitably someone will want to know, yeah, but how does it make my life better discerning the atmospheric composition of the fourth planet from The Dog Star?

Well, for a lot of people maybe it doesn't. However, anyone with a resume that includes a degree from the University of Arizona will see their market value rise with the reputation of their alma mater.

No, it's not going to put someone in an Italian sports car if they now drive a Hyundai. But on the margins, absolutely, it can help. 

I remember former University of Arizona President Peter Likins talk about how his degree from Stanford University improved his prospects as his alma mater went from "darned-good" school (he referred to it as something like a Bay Area commuter school — a bit of an exaggeration) to maybe the best in the country.

He bought his education low and sold high.

One Human Resources person says "oh, this person went to the University of Arizona — they did the Webb telescope. Put them in the yes pile." Alumni's prospects rise and fall with the institution that conferred the degree.

Conversely, attacks on the U of A (say by a hostile legislature) take money out of alumni's pockets.

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The longer game is that as U of A's reputation improves, attracting talent gets easier. The better the talent on campus, the better students get attracted. The more the student body improves, the more the faculty will improve.

Even if the degree comes from the time of brain drain in the early part of the 21st Century, those folks get to latch on to the university's improving brand.

The game gets turbocharged with endeavors like the Webb telescope. So thank George and Marcia Rieke, as well their graduate teams. And Wildcats in Edinburgh might want to buy a Scot a drink and toast to rising fortunes.

And — y'know — general geekery and discovery ...

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party.

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One of the first images from the James Webb Space telescope, from a camera designed and built by a team led by UA astronomer George Rieke. His wife Marcia Rieke developed one of the other four cameras aboard Webb.


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