Hopes and controversies surrounding the James Webb space telescope, the heir of Hubble

Hopes and controversies surrounding the James Webb space telescope, the heir of Hubble

Hopes and controversies surrounding the James Webb space telescope

The launch is scheduled for December 18th. It will have to open new frontiers for astronomy but is challenged for the naming of former NASA director James Webb, accused by many of homophobia

(photo: NASA / MSFC / David Higginbotham) The moment of truth will arrive on next December 18, when the James Webb space telescope will depart from the Guiana Space Center to reach its final orbit, about one and a half million kilometers from the Earth (near the so-called point L2, or the Lagrange point located beyond our planet on the Sun-Earth plane). If all goes as hoped, Hubble's successor, the most powerful space telescope ever built, should open a new phase for astronomy, investigating the first moments after the Big Bang, the origin of galaxies, the nature of dark matter. , and other still open mysteries of our universe.

If something goes wrong, however, there is a risk of a real scientific massacre: with an investment that has now reached 10 billion dollars, failure would cripple for decades progress in the study of the universe. With such a stake, maximum concentration on the mission would be desirable. Instead, the telescope has been at the center of bitter controversy for months over the choice to dedicate the mission to James Webb, a former NASA director who is now accused of having participated in the discrimination implemented by the American government against LGBT + scientists.

Who was James Edwin Webb

The name of the new NASA telescope (created in collaboration with the European Space Agency, ESA, and the Canadian equivalent) was chosen in 2002, in the initial stages of the project. Catching everyone a little by surprise. Normally NASA telescopes are dedicated scientists such as James Hubble, an American astronomer who helped found extragalactic astronomy and observational cosmology (the study of the origin of the Universe carried out through the use of telescopes and other detection tools).

James E. Webb, on the other hand, was never a man of science. His contribution was in fact of a purely organizational type: after a life as an official in the American government, he was in fact called in 1961 by Kennedy to direct NASA in one of its most critical moments, and participated in this role in the Apollo mission, which in 1969 brought the first man to the moon. For the first time, therefore, a NASA scientific mission does not pay homage to a scientist, but to an agency director. An anomalous detail, which initially did not however arouse particular criticism, because it wanted to celebrate the efforts made by Webb to keep scientific research at the center of NASA's activity, in a period in which space exploration drained most of the budget of the 'agency. However, things have changed in more recent times, when a number of particularly embarrassing skeletons have started to emerge from Webb's closet.

Purges against the lgbt community

In the later years Forty, just when Webb began to take its first steps within the American administration, in the United States what is now known as lavender scare (or "lavender fear", along the lines of the "red fear" that characterized in the same years the political season of McCarthyism), a wave of panic for the "moral" stability of the institutions, which led to the issuing of federal regulations that aimed at the purge of homosexual personnel from government apparatuses.

Webb, who between 1949 and 19 52 held the role of undersecretary of the American State Department, therefore found himself in the control room where the rules that made him lose his job were thought and written. thousands of homosexuals (including at NASA, as in the case of the accountant Clifford Norton, fired for "immoral conduct" in 1963). And although he did not go down in history as one of the ideologues of the lavender scare, he certainly did not oppose it, and indeed participated in its translation into federal politics. The first to raise the issue was historian David Johnson, in a 2004 book devoted to lavender scare. And more recently, the topic returned to discussion in May of this year, when a group of astronomers launched an online petition to officially ask NASA to change the name of the telescope, quickly collecting thousands of subscribers. of prominent scientists in the field.

NASA's decision

Spurred on by the petition, NASA announced in July that it had launched an internal investigation to assess Webb's allegations ( who died in 1992) and then decide whether or not to re-evaluate the official designation of the new mission. The response came in recent weeks and has disappointed the expectations of those hoping for a step back from the agency. According to NASA, there is no evidence that James Webb ever actively participated in persecutory activities against the LGBT + community, and therefore the name of the mission will not be changed.

The controversy, of course, has not subsided. Quite the contrary: the decision to disseminate the results of its internal investigation only in the press, and without disclosing a relationship with the evidence that emerged during the investigation, has brought new criticism to the agency. Like those of the astrophic Lucianne Walkowicz, a non-binary scientist who in recent days has decided to resign from the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee, precisely to protest the decision not to revise the name of the mission.

Aside. his, NASA has promised that the investigation into Webb will continue in the coming months and that it will also consider documents currently unavailable due to the pandemic. Pending new developments, many astronomers have however decided not to use the name chosen by NASA. There are those who informally call the new Harriet Tubman Space Telescope (HTST), as proposed by the petitioners, in honor of a famous African-American activist of the early twentieth century. And who prefers to rethink the acronym Jwsp (James Webb Space Telescope), proposing for example to understand it as "Just Wonderful Space Telescope" (or "truly wonderful space telescope").

The scientific mission

Once the controversy regarding the name has been archived, it is worth remembering what the mission of the new telescope is, and why its launch is so eagerly awaited by the scientific community. To begin with, it is the largest space telescope ever designed, with a primary mirror reaching 6.5 meters in diameter, compared to Hubble's 2.4, and 3.5 meters at Esa's Herschel Space Observatory (retired since 2013). The tools available, and the size of the mirror, will therefore make it possible to observe very distant objects, unreachable by his predecessors. In this way it will be possible to study, for example, the large-scale structure of the Universe, that is, how the individual galaxies are distributed, and the clusters and super clusters that they compose, to deepen our cosmological knowledge, and go in search of matter. and dark energy.

It will be possible to observe the very ancient galaxies born in the first moments following the Big Bang, and thus study the origin of our Universe. Or, by aiming the instruments at objects much closer to us, scan the atmosphere of exoplanets, looking for clues that demonstrate the presence of life forms and biological processes on their surface. The hope is therefore that in its 10 years of activity the new space telescope will revolutionize our knowledge of the Universe. And with such an ambition, before starting to grind new discoveries it would probably be a good idea to find a name that everyone agrees on.

Space - 3 hours ago

NASA is about to launch a probe to hit and deflect an asteroid

The first film shot in space is made in Russia

China's new hypersonic missile


Space events Nasa Space globalData.fldTopic = "Space events, Nasa, Space"

This opera is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Powered by Blogger.