“White Knuckle” is how Rusty Whitman describes the month ahead, following the launch of the historic James Webb Space Telescope, which is now pre-set for Saturday.
From a secure control room in Baltimore, Maryland, Whitman and his colleagues will catch their breath when Webb goes online. But this is just the beginning.
For the first six months after Webb’s launch, Whitman and a team from the Space Telescope Science Institute will monitor the observatory around the clock, making tiny adjustments to ensure it is perfectly calibrated for astronomers around the world to explore the universe.
The most decisive moments will come at the beginning of the mission: the telescope must be aimed at an accurate trajectory, while at the same time unrolling a massive mirror and an even larger sun visor – risky choreography.
“After 30 days, I can breathe a sigh of relief if we stay on schedule,” said Whitman, flight operations system design manager.
He leads a team of technicians who set up Webb’s control room, a high-tech center with dozens of screens to monitor and control the spacecraft.
In the front row, only one person will be able to send commands to the $ 10 billion machine, which will eventually enter orbit more than 1.5 million kilometers away.
At other stations, engineers will monitor specific systems for any anomalies.
Once launched, Webb’s operations are largely automated, but the team in Baltimore must be prepared to deal with any unexpected problems.
Fortunately, they had a lot of practice.
Over a dozen simulations, engineers practiced quick diagnostics and troubleshooting, invented by the team, as well as experts flying from Europe and California.
During one of these tests, electricity went out in the building.
“It was completely unexpected,” Whitman said. “People who didn’t know – they thought it was part of the plan.”
Fortunately, the team had already prepared for such an event: the standby generator quickly restored power to the control room.
Even with practice, Whitman is still worried about what might go wrong: “I am nervous about the possibility that we have forgotten something. I always try to think, “What have we forgotten? “
In addition to its job of keeping Webb up and running, the Space Telescope Science Institute, housed at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, is deciding who can use this expensive scientific instrument.
Although the telescope will operate almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there are only 8,760 hours a year left to be divided among scientists demanding their participation in the revolutionary discovery.
Black holes, exoplanets, star clusters – how do you decide which exciting experiment gets priority?
By the end of 2020, researchers from around the world had submitted over 1200 proposals, of which 400 were selected for the first year of operation.
Hundreds of independent professionals met for two weeks in early 2021 – online due to the pandemic – to discuss proposals and shorten the list.
The proposals were anonymous, a practice pioneered by the Space Telescope Science Institute for another project it runs, the Hubble Telescope. As a result, many more projects of women and young scientists were selected.
“These are exactly the people we want to use in the observatory because these are new ideas,” explained Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb’s scientific advisor.
The time required for observations in each project varies in duration, with some taking only a few hours, and the longest taking about 200 hours.
What images will be presented to the public first? “I cannot say,” Pontoppidan said, “that this should be a surprise.”
The early publication of images and data will allow scientists to quickly understand the telescope’s capabilities and set up systems that operate in sync.
“We want them to be able to do science quickly,” explained Pontoppidan. “Then they can come back and say, ‘Hi, we need to do more observations based on the data we already have.’
Pontoppidan, himself an astronomer, believes Webb will lead to many discoveries “far beyond what we have seen before.”
“The things I’m most worried about are things that we’re not predicting right now,” he said.
Before the launch of Hubble, no exoplanets were discovered – planets orbiting stars outside our solar system. Since then, scientists have found thousands.