NASA accomplished a historic milestone Tuesday by completing the unfurling of the massive sunshield that protects the James Webb Space Telescope from light and heat in space.
However, if you're seeking visual proof of this or any other Webb deployment, you'll be disappointed.
This is due to the lack of surveillance cameras installed throughout the observatory, which houses the world's largest and most powerful telescope ever built. And you'll be photo-deprived from Webb for the first half of 2022: the first images from the telescope aren't expected until June.
So, why isn't there a camera on NASA's massive new observatory?
In a live broadcast depicting the last steps of the challenging sunshield deployment Tuesday (Jan. 4), Julie Van Campen, deputy commissioning manager for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Center in Maryland, revealed it has to do with light and heat.
Webb launched on Dec. 25 and is currently on a month-long voyage to its observing location, about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) beyond Earth. However, the engineers in charge of the telescope's nerve-wracking development have no photographs to work with.
Van Campen highlighted that Webb's multi-decade development began when portable cameras were scarce. Even if a camera was brought on board, it may wreak havoc with Webb's sensitive optics, which are sensitive in infrared and used to peer back at the young universe.
The side of the observatory that faces away from the Sun is completely dark, whereas the side that faces the Sun is so bright that any images obtained would be loaded with high contrast and large light glares.
Also, as if that weren't difficult enough, NASA would have to power any cameras on the observatory, which would necessitate running wires to them. Additionally, the "cold side" of the space telescope would introduce some "delicate" power balance difficulties since vibration and heat could transfer through the cables to the cameras, affecting their image quality.
In terms of temperatures, NASA explained that it would have needed to design a specific camera that could endure the extremely cold temperatures on the observatory's side, which faces away from the Sun. The James Webb observatory was already a difficult endeavor, and additional cameras would only make it much more difficult.
The command center, however, isn't blind. NASA takes data from all of the observatory's instruments in the absence of photos or a live video stream, showing the scientists exactly what they're doing at all times. A visualization tool is used to synthesize the readings, which are displayed in real-time on their screens.
As a result, according to Van Campen, engineers are depending on traditional telescope data. Telemetry, or data collection, performs the job - even if it isn't quite as exciting.