THE launching of the James Webb space telescope on Christmas Day marks another milestone in mankind’s quest for a deeper understanding of how the universe began.
A rocket blasting off from the French Guiana is carrying the $10-billion telescope to its “parking” station 1.5-million kilometers above the Earth. Once there, it will deploy its 6.5-meter-wide golden mirror to catch the light from stars scientists say were born shortly after the Big Bang more than 1.3 billion years ago.
The James Webb telescope offers us a look into the very distant past. The secrets it will reveal could forever change the way we look at the universe.
We feel a kinship with the stars. That’s unsurprising because science has proven that we are 97 percent made up of stardust. The carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and phosphorus in our body can be found in over 150,000 stars that have been cataloged by astronomers.
Carl Sagan, the eminent astrophysicist and science writer, put it this way: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood [and] the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.”
So, every twinkle from a star could be a heartbeat, pulsing from a faraway galaxy.
The James Webb telescope will help us find out more about this cosmic connectivity. “We’re going to be entering a whole new regime of astrophysics, a new frontier; and that is what gets so many of us excited,” one of the astronomers involved in the mission said.
The enthusiasm is infectious. Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, was blasted into orbit in 1957. Since then, man has flown to the moon and back, sent a space probe into the outer reaches of the solar system and landed robotic rovers on Mars.
In just 60 years, we’ve learned more about the heavens than astronomers ever did in centuries of stargazing.
Space exploration used to be a fierce competition between two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. It has since evolved into a multination, cooperative effort. And it all began with the International Space Station (ISS).
The modular facility, which resembles a giant Lego construction kit, was assembled block by block in space. Today, the ISS is a manned research laboratory and observation platform that is a collaborative project of the US, Russia, Japan, and 12 other countries and several space agencies.
The ISS has been continuously functioning for 23 years and is expected to be habitable for another 10 to 20 years.
The research and development (R&D) from six decades of space exploration has spawned a host of everyday products on earth.
Few realize that the nutritional enrichment supplement in baby formula was originally developed as an algae-based recycling agent for long-duration space travel.
Memory foam was conceived by NASA as crash protection for astronauts. Now, it has found its way to the bedroom of homes worldwide as more comfortable mattresses and pillows.
Space R&D also gave us scratch-resistant optical lenses, ear thermometers, invisible teeth braces, cordless tools, smoke detectors and even shoe insoles.
The list is long and will only get longer. The sky is no longer the limit.
But the biggest benefit from space exploration is the realization that nations can come together and combine their talents and efforts for one global cause.
Even countries, with a fledgling space program such as the Philippines, are welcome.
In 1997, Agila-2, the first Filipino-owned satellite, was deployed into orbit by a Chinese rocket in China’s Sichuan province. In 2016, scientists from the Department of Science and Technology and researchers from the University of the Philippines teamed up with two Japanese universities to launch Diwata-1, the first microsatellite designed and constructed by Filipinos.
Diwata-1 was deployed into orbit from the ISS. Since then, the country has launched Diwata-2 and Maya-1 and plans to launch more microsatellites by 2022.
As we continue to find ourselves in the stars, let us once again be inspired by Sagan: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
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Finding ourselves in the stars