Getting ready for lift-off

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: The Origami Satellite / View Guide

Directions for teachers: Ask students to read the online Science News article “When James Webb launches, it will have a bigger to-do list than 1980s researchers suspected,” which details the long journey of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to make it into space to explore other galaxies, and answer the following questions. A version of the story, “The origami satellite,” appears in the October 9, 2021 & October 23, 2021 issue of Science News.

1. What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

The James Webb Space Telescope is a telescope that scientists plan to launch into space to explore distant galaxies.

2. What makes the James Webb Space Telescope different from previous space telescopes?

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the largest, most complex telescope ever sent into orbit. Unlike most space telescopes, which house a single lens or mirror within a tube that blocks out sunlight, the James Webb Space Telescope’s 6.5-meter-wide mirror and its scientific instruments are exposed to the vacuum of space.

3. Why is the telescope’s mirror so large? What is the purpose of the telescope’s shield?

The telescope’s mirror is large so it can see further into space. The telescope’s multilayered shield, which is the size of a tennis court, will block light from the sun, Earth and moon so the telescope can see the cosmos. The shield will also radiate heat to keep the telescope cool.

4. Who is the telescope named for, and why did scientists choose that name? Why is the choice potentially controversial?

The telescope is named for former NASA administrator James Webb in honor of his efforts to support research that improved our understanding of the universe during a time when most of the United States’ focus was on human spaceflight. Naming the telescope after Webb may be controversial because of allegations that he persecuted gay and lesbian people during his career in government. NASA is investigating the claims.

5. Why did scientists nickname the James Webb Space Telescope the “origami telescope”?

The telescope is so large that it has to be launched folded up. Once the telescope is in space, it will unfold and assemble itself.

6. When did scientists first come up with plans for the telescope, and when will it launch?

Scientists first dreamed up the James Webb Space Telescope in 1989. The telescope is slated to launch in December 2021.

7. List some reasons for the delay of the telescope’s launch.

Budgetary and technical issues, human errors and the coronavirus pandemic all contributed to delays in the telescope’s launch.

8. Where will the telescope launch from, and how is it getting to its launch site? What is the telescope’s final destination?

The James Webb Space Telescope is on its way by boat through the Panama Canal to French Guiana, where it will launch into space on the Ariane 5 rocket. Its destination is a point in space called L2 that is 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.

9. How has science changed since the telescope’s inception? How does the telescope that scientists built differ from their original idea for the telescope?

When scientists first thought up the James Webb Space Telescope, dark energy and exoplanets (planets orbiting stars outside our solar system) hadn’t been discovered yet. Scientists imagined the telescope would have a 10-meter-wide mirror that was sensitive to infrared light. While the James Webb Space Telescope does detect infrared light, its primary mirror is just 6.5 meters wide.

10. Look at the section titled “What could go wrong?” in the Science News article. How long will it take for the telescope to reach its destination and start taking scientific measurements? Name at least two major milestones between the telescope’s launch and when it begins its mission.

The telescope will reach its destination 29 days after launch. At 180 days after launch, the telescope will have finished calibrating its science instruments and can start its mission. The telescope will unfurl itself within the first 12 days after launch and communicate with scientists on Earth 28 days after launch.

11. How long is the telescope estimated to “live” once it reaches its final destination? Why does the telescope have a fixed lifetime, and what will happen when it retires?

The telescope is estimated to operate for five to 10 years. The telescope has a fixed lifetime because it will be too far from Earth for astronauts to refuel and repair it. Once the telescope runs out of fuel, its operators will position it in an out-of-the-way orbit around the sun.

12. Give an example of a literary device that is used in the article. What type of literary device is it?

The article relates the time and process of building the telescope to building a pyramid. This is an example of a metaphor.