‘Unknown: Cosmic Time Machine’ Explained: Was The James Webb Telescope Launch A Success?


Unknown: Cosmic Time Machine is a new Netflix documentary film as part of the ongoing Unknown documentary series, and this time we are taken into the mysteries of space and the universe. The film presents footage and information from the historic launch of the James Webb Space Telescope into the dark depths of outer space. The focus of this documentary is mainly on the people involved with the launch program, the various difficulties that were part of the operation, and finally, the results it is yielding now. Although a little weaker and less enjoyable than the other Unknown films to me personally, Cosmic Time Machine can still entertain those interested in outer space and the remarkable James Webb telescope.

What Is The James Webb Telescope?

Anybody with the slightest interest in the vast field of astronomy perhaps knows well of the James Webb Space Telescope, which has been sending back some unbelievable photographs of galaxies far away from us. The James Webb Space Telescope, abbreviated JWST, is an extremely high-powered telescope built to photograph far-off galaxies and what was once believed to be empty space using infrared radiation.

Ever since scientific progress has allowed us to research such matters, humans have been captivated by the idea of how planets were formed and how life forms came into being. Cosmic Time Machine begins with a simplistic narration of what is now believed to be the possible sequence of events that took place at the beginning of the universe. After the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago, the universe was filled with hydrogen and helium gases, which eventually started to bond together, forming stars. These stars are then believed to have grouped into galaxies in a phenomenon that is termed the “first light” in space astronomy. It is believed that the beginning of life, in a sense, took place after this very phenomenon, and there has been a constant interest in knowing more about it. This is theoretically possible with the help of space telescopes, as they can be thought of as a means to know the past. It is based on the principle that light takes time to travel through space. Therefore, the images that we see through a space telescope of planets and galaxies many lightyears away from the Earth are actually from the time that has already passed, i.e., images from the past. Although witnessing the “first light” still remains a theoretical possibility and is the ultimate goal of these studies, the advancement in space telescopes is immense as well.

It was in 1990 that the first major breakthrough in using space telescopes to find out about space took place, with the launch of the Hubble telescope. While outer space was believed to be empty and dark, photographs taken by the Hubble telescope of planets and galaxies many lightyears away amazed the world. Images of colorful clusters of light all across the vast space became a point of conversation and intrigue about the possibilities in space, including whether other life forms exist somewhere in some galaxy far away. Ever since the success of the Hubble telescope, NASA and other space research centers had been working on a far superior telescope that can look even further into space and ultimately came up with the James Webb Space Telescope.

While the Hubble telescope had already been able to capture some young galaxies, the central idea of the newer, much more advanced JWST is to witness galaxies and events as close to the Big Bang as possible. With advancements in almost every aspect of the physical capabilities of the telescope, the JWST is much more capable than the Hubble, most notably in its much bigger mirrors. The James Webb telescope is also powerful enough to study the molecules in a specific planet’s atmosphere, through which it can be identified whether the planet is habitable or not. Therefore, the James Webb telescope actually promises to be able to answer multiple questions with just one operation and one piece of machinery.

What Were The Risks Involved In The James Webb Telescope Launch?

Along with being the most powerful and effective telescope imaginable to mankind, the James Webb Telescope also had some major problems associated with it. It was because of these problems that its launch mission became one of the most difficult operations ever conducted by NASA and other space programs. The launch was a joint operation conducted by the pioneering space agencies of the world, i.e., CSA, ESA and NASA and, and it had been announced way back in the 1990s. At the time of this announcement, the telescope was projected to be ready by 2007 and was estimated to cost somewhere around 500 million dollars. However, all commenters in the documentary film agree that this price estimation was totally inaccurate, for it was almost common knowledge that the JWST would most definitely cost much more.

Eventually, as the project began in full swing and got much delayed than the projected timeline, the cost of building the James Webb telescope exceeded 6 billion dollars. The first major difficulty that space engineers faced with regards to the project came in 2011, when Congress considered pulling funds away and canceling the project altogether. It was presumably with great effort (Cosmic Time Machine does not get too much into it) that the NASA team convinced Congress not to abandon the work they had already done. Ultimately, the government agreed to pay more money for the work, and a new head was appointed to it, with an estimated total of 9 billion dollars used on JWST.

Although the financial and administrative pressure was somewhat eased, problems related to the sheer complexity of the telescope remained. One of the most basic problems faced was that the circumference of the gigantic telescope would always be greater than that of the rocket on which it needed to be strapped and sent to outer space. Because of this, the James Webb telescope had to be folded in parts and assembled in that manner, in order to be compact enough to be carried by a rocket. This, in turn, obviously increased the number of moving mechanical parts on the telescope, which increased the number of possible failures with regards to the operation.

The parts and mechanisms used on the telescope were intricate and, at the same time, quite flimsy compared to previous telescopes because of its special requirements. During a series of tests conducted with regards to the real temperatures, pressures, and other conditions that the telescope would have to go through in space, the JWST came up with multiple failures, setting the engineers back in time and money. The grand scale of the telescope, and therefore the operation, meant that a large team of space scientists and engineers had to work on the whole matter, further increasing the resources spent and also making it more difficult to manage every aspect of the project.

A term called “single point failures” is used to describe the exact extent of risk involved in the JWST launch. Single-point failure refers to any single failure or breakdown in the entire telescope and rocket that can instantly make the entire operation fail. The riskiest operation before the James Webb telescope, which was the Mars Perseverance mission in 2021, involved around 80 to 90 single-point failures. Whereas, in the case of the James Webb launch, the total number of single-point failures was a massive 344, meaning that 344 intricate and crucial matters had to work exactly as intended in order to make the whole operation a success.

Was The James Webb Telescope Launch A Success?

Considering the many possibilities of failure, the successful launch of the telescope in December 2021 was a staggering feat in itself. The rocket carrying the telescope was perfectly launched into the sky from an ESA spaceport in French Guiana, and it also successfully detached the telescope at the desired location in outer space. The extensive mirrors of the satellite had to then be rolled out remotely through software codes written and executed on Earth. A massive reflector sheet, so that the telescope does not get burned out by the reflections of the Sun, moon, and Earth, also had to be rolled out in a similar manner. By the end of the schedule, all of these operations had taken place as intended, and the James Webb telescope launch was a grand success.

Since the telescope has started to operate and take photographs of faraway galaxies in space, some more magnificent visuals from outer space have reached us. The fact that the James Webb telescope is much more powerful and better equipped than the previous Hubble telescope has been proven through these images. Unknown: Cosmic Time Machine also gives a very brief glimpse at how the photographs sent from the telescope are then presented to the public. The documentary also features President Joe Biden releasing the first photograph taken by the telescope to the public as a celebration of the grand success of the long-drawn operation. So far, the James Webb telescope has been able to find an exoplanet quite similar to Earth, many lightyears away. The risk of the telescope and the operation failing still remains, owing to the fact that the telescope has been placed so far away from the Earth that no astronaut can manually go and fix things like it did with the Hubble telescope. But the possibility of finding new information about space and other galaxies also makes the James Webb telescope a matter of great excitement.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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