Space, James Webb telescope: part between hopes and controversies

Space, James Webb telescope: part between hopes and controversies
Space, James Webb telescope: part between hopes and controversies

The launch is scheduled for December 18. 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 come next December 18, when the James Webb space telescope it 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, that is the Lagrange point located beyond our planet on the Sun-Earth plane). If all goes as hoped, Hubble’s successor, that is, the most powerful space telescope ever made, should open a new phase for astronomy, investigating the first moments following the Big Bang, the origin of galaxies, the nature of the matter dark, 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 the 10 billion dollarsfailure would cripple progress in the study of the universe for decades. With such a stake, maximum concentration on the mission would be desirable. But for months the telescope has been at the center of bitter controversy for the choice to dedicate the mission to James Webb, a former director of NASA today accused of having participated in the discrimination implemented against of lgbt + scientists by the US government.

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. Taking everyone by surprise. Normally the telescopes of the Nasa dedicated scientists like James Hubble, American astronomer who helped found theextragalactic astronomy and the observational cosmology (the study of the origin of the Universe carried out through the use of telescopes and other detection instruments).

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

The purges against the LGBT community

In the late 1940s, just as Webb was taking his first steps within the American administration, what is now known as lavender scare (O “fear lavender“, Along the lines of”fear red“That characterized the political season of McCarthyism in the same years), a wave of panic for the” moral “stability of the institutions, which led to the issue of federal regulations that aimed atpurge of homosexual personnel from government apparatuses.

Webb, which between 1949 and the 1952 he held the role of undersecretary of the American State Department, he was therefore in the control room where the rules that made losing their jobs to thousands of homosexuals (also to the Nasa, as in the case of the accountant Clifford Norton, fired for “immoral conduct” in 1963). And despite not having gone down in history as one of the ideologues of lavender scare, certainly did not oppose it, and indeed participated in its translation into federal politics. The historian was the first to raise the question David Johnson, in a book of 2004 dedicated 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 of the field.

NASA’s decision

As a result of the petition, the Nasa in July it announced that it had launched an internal investigation for evaluate the charges against Webb (who died in 1992) and then decide whether or not to re-evaluate the official designation of the new mission. The response arrived 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 community lgbt+, and therefore the mission name 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, scientist non binary which 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.

For its part, the Nasa promised that the investigation on Webb will continue in the coming months and 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 telescope Harriet Tubman Space Telescope (Htst), as proposed by the petitioners, in honor of a famous Afro-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” (O “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 start, it is about the largest telescope space never designed, with one mirror primary that reaches i 6.5 meters in diameter, against i 2,4 from Hubble, e i 3,5 of the Herschel Space Observatory dell’This (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 single galaxies are distributed, and the clusters and super clusters that they compose, to deepen our knowledge cosmologiche, and go in search of matter ed energy dark.

It will be possible to observe the very ancient galaxies born in the first moments following the Big Bang, and thus study theorigin of our Universe. Or, by pointing the instruments on objects much closer to us, to plumb the atmosphere of esopianeti, 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.

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