It was Christmas and there was a pandemic…
Christmas 2021. In a world still immersed in the pandemic, and about 18 months after Pope Francis’ silent, mystical prayer in St. Peter’s Square, a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket was launched from French Guiana carrying the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which headed for a point in space 1.5 million km from Earth, to search places far, far away. The symbolic date was dictated more by technical than religious reasons, but it was a coincidence that took nothing away from the poetics of the event. “It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it,” as Richard Feynman wrote. Everything went perfectly.
JWST is the most powerful space telescope ever made, designed mainly to conduct “infrared observational astronomy,” that is to collect very low energy signals, thus allowing us to investigate the most remote epochs of the visible Universe. Started in 1996, the program took more than 20 years to reach this stage and required intense collaboration between NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).
The initial launch date was scheduled for 2007 but postponed for 14 years, leading some to doubt that the launch would ever be achieved. One of the major concerns was that once the telescope was sent into space, even the smallest intervention would be impossible because of its distance from Earth. The whole system, complex and intricate as it was, had to be perfect. The cost of the program was around 10 billion dollars. This is certainly a substantial figure, but corresponds to less than 1 percent of the annual military expenditures of the USA, the EU and Canada, the main participants in the program.