The telescope is a marvelous instrument. Its lenses and mirrors perform magic by bringing what's distant closer.
It's also a marvelous metaphor for this time of year, as we look to the future and wonder what it will look like when it becomes our present.
This year, the metaphorical and the actual aligned for everyone navigating the road ahead, when the James Webb Space Telescope finally launched. Sure, its production went over budget by billions, and yes, it lifted off 11 years later than first anticipated, frequent consequences of pursuing audacious goals.
But all of that delivered a launch on Christmas Day, adding to the annual font of anticipation. Where many among us traditionally lift our eyes to the heavens figuratively, this time we did so in reality.
The Webb blasted off from a tropical rainforest in French Guiana, on the northern coast of South America. Its earliest moments of flight were obscured by clouds, not unlike our own muddled present. And as it passed in and out of view as it climbed, it was easy to see those moments of uncertainty as representing the mysteries the telescope was designed to solve.
Its mission is ambitious — to look back more than 13 billion years at the first stars and galaxies that emerged after the Big Bang, and to hunt for clues about the formation of black holes. This is origin-of-life stuff. The Webb also will be seeking the infrared signatures of oxygen and water on planets orbiting distant stars. That's life-elsewhere-in-the-universe stuff.
And it will be doing so from its eventual perch 1 million miles from Earth.
Its numbers are the kind that are difficult to wrap your mind around. But they're also the kind of numbers that inspire.
The Webb's ultimate payoff lies in providing the information astronomers and physicists need to deepen their accounts of cosmic history. The telescope's more immediate benefit is what it teaches us about ourselves.
The Webb demands we look up rather than down and consider the endless expanses of space and time rather than the confines of our daily lives. It is a celebration of human ingenuity and technical achievement, a testament to the power of dreams and imagination. It is proof that yearning and grasping can find fruit, and it shows us for the magnificent strivers that we are.
Of course, high rewards don't come without high risks and this mission has plenty, from the journey itself to the many maneuvers that must be made remotely for the telescope to become operational — like the ongoing "unfolding" of a tennis-court-sized sunshield to protect the telescope from intense solar radiation. It's only one of what NASA says are 344 potential single-point failures, not unlike what seems to be 344 anxieties we contend with every day right now.
The Webb will have plenty of celestial company in inspiring us in 2022. The space agencies of Europe and Russia will team to send a rover to Mars, scheduled for September, when it will join rovers from the United States and China already on the Red Planet's surface. NASA's DART mission is slated to slam into an asteroid in 2022 to see whether that could be a way to divert a future one headed for Earth. Another NASA mission intends to explore a strange, metal-rich asteroid that might be part of the core of an early planet. And the U.S., Russia, India, and Japan will send missions to and around the Moon.
The Webb itself is a grand partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, and its instruments and data will be used by scientists around the world from all sorts of countries.
More reasons for hope, in a fractious world, at any time of year.
Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.