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Sensemaker: Staring into space

Sensemaker: Staring into space

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The UK’s Lib Dems pulled off a historic by-election win that a senior Tory backbencher called a referendum on Boris Johnson (more below). 
  • North Korea began commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il, with a temporary ban on laughing, drinking, and shopping.
  • An American cryptocurrency group announced plans to buy Bradford City, an English football team founded in 1903.

Staring into space

On Christmas Eve, all being well, one of the most ambitious scientific instruments ever built by humankind will blast off from French Guiana en route to a point a million miles from Earth. There it will hang in space, orbiting the sun but protected from solar radiation by a shield the size of a tennis court. Its purpose will be to gaze in the opposite direction, into deep space, to plumb the deepest, oldest mysteries of the universe and seek signs of life on other planets. 

The James Webb space telescope, three decades in the making and six metres wide at its main mirror, is designed to do things the team behind the Hubble space telescope could only dream of. It should be able to

  • search for the first galaxies and stars formed in the “cosmic sunrise” after the Big Bang; 
  • determine how galaxies are born and evolve; 
  • observe stars form until they become planetary systems; and 
  • measure the physical and chemical properties of planets billions of light years away to examine their potential for life.

How? With a folding gold-plated mirror so smooth that if it were the size of a continent there would be no blemish on it more than ankle-high; and with a collection of four unbelievably sensitive infrared receptors that can

  • study 100 different galaxies simultaneously;
  • detect light 13.5 billion years old whose wavelength has expanded 20-fold – from ultra-violet to infrared – since it started its journey across the cosmos; and
  • measure the equivalent of the heat emitted by a bumblebee at a distance of 760,000 miles.

For how long? Nasa says many of the objects the Webb will study are so faint that its main mirror will have to stare at them for hundreds of hours to collect enough light to form a spectrum.

The mission is supposed to last five years. The spacecraft of which the telescope is the main component has enough propellant to stay in position for 10. 

Where? At Lagrange Point 2 (L2), one of the coolest places in the solar system. 

  • L2 is cool in the sense of stable: it’s a point a million miles further from the sun than Earth is, where the gravitational pulls of both sun and Earth are aligned and precisely equal to the centripetal force needed for a small object (like the telescope) to move with them. So the telescope can orbit the sun while its position relative to Earth stays constant, saving fuel and enjoying a view of deep space unobstructed by Earth, moon or sun. 
  • L2 is also cool in the sense that, on the shady side of its sun shield, the temperature will be 50 degrees Kelvin or minus 223 degrees C, which is essential for the proper functioning of the telescope’s infrared cameras.

By the numbers

18 – segments in the folding mirror

5 – quantity of gold used to coat the segments, in men’s wedding ring equivalents, because gold reflects infrared better than any other metal

200,000 – watts of solar radiation that will strike the hot side of the sun shield

0.2 – watts of radiation that will penetrate the shield

10 million – SPF equivalent if the shield were a sun cream

Who was James Webb? He led the Apollo programme that put the first humans on the moon, and was responsible for more than 75 subsequent launches for Nasa’s post-Apollo space science programme. 

How long before we get data?

It will take the telescope 29 days to get to the L2 point and another six months to focus its instruments, cool down and go to work.

What might it answer?

  • Unresolved questions about why dark matter and dark energy exist, how fast the universe is expanding and how supermassive black holes formed.
  • The question of whether we’re alone. Potentially habitable earth-sized planets are relatively common – there are a dozen billion in our galaxy alone. Natalie Batalha of the University of California, Santa Cruz, will be working with her daughter Natasha to  measure CO2 and methane content as signs of life in the atmospheres of some of these. “I feel confident that with the James Webb telescope my grandchildren will be able to look up to the sky, point to a star and say ‘there is life’,” she says. The most auspicious planetary system seen yet, known as Trappist-1, has a Jupiter-sized star and seven earth-sized planets of which three could be habitable. 

To note: Earth didn’t make its appearance until billions of years after the Milky Way formed, which means other planets could be much further along the evolutionary path. Trappist-1 is a mere 40 light years away.


belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Lib Dems win
North Shropshire was not a red wall seat of the kind Boris Johnson filched from Labour two years ago to get Brexit done. It was a Tory stronghold for two centuries until last night, when the Lib Dems’ Helen Morgan overturned a 23,000 Conservative majority in a stunning by-election rebuke for Johnson. By-elections are snapshots at best, but the scale of the Tories’ defeat suggests much more than local grumpiness about the lobbying scandal that unseated the outgoing MP, Owen Paterson, or passing frustration with Omicron. There is an angry mood where it matters most to Johnson – on his own backbenches. “If the prime minister fails, the prime minister goes,” Sir Roger Gale MP told the BBC. “This has to be seen as a referendum on the prime minister’s performance…. One more strike and he’s out.” This wasn’t a re-referendum on Brexit, although North Shropshire was solidly for Leave. And it won’t lead directly to a leadership challenge – not before Christmas, anyway.  


New things technology, science, engineering

Meta Clegg
With neat timing, the FT’s Henry Mance has an extensive interview with the man who imploded the Lib Dems as a British political force, on the day its current leader took a triumphant step towards rebuilding it. Nick Clegg brought the party to power in coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, lost 49 seats in 2015 and is now Meta / Facebook’s global head of comms. Mance makes the simple but important point that if Clegg’s job is to burnish Meta’s image he’s not doing very well. That image is dreadful, and the new name hasn’t helped much. But Clegg is interesting too, and honest about his struggles with the Great Trump Conundrum. He “really, really wrestled” with whether to ban the ex-pres from the platform and implies the decision to do so was more his than Mark Zuckerberg’s. Which probably means Clegg wielded more brute political power as an unelected exec in the US than he ever did as deputy PM in the UK. The interview was conducted partly in the virtual world Meta is trying to create. The avatars given to Clegg and Mance – whether by Meta or the FT’s graphics department is unclear – both need work, especially on their teeth. 


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Postcode pensions
Where you live could determine the age you retire. As a side arm of the UK government’s levelling up agenda the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is set to review pension policy and potentially reduce the retirement age in areas with lower life expectancy. Would it make a difference? It might. Life expectancy differs vastly across the country, especially for women. A woman in Westminster can expect to live to 87 years, eight years longer than a woman in Blackpool and nearly nine years longer than a woman in Glasgow. The DWP’s review has a conclusion date of 2023 so don’t expect a decision anytime soon. But it could be a smart move – red wall seats the Tories scraped up in 2019 have some of the lowest life expectancies. Still, the UK sits behind most of the OECD on average pension income with an above-average relative income inequality. ‘Levelling up’ would be good for all of us. 


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Hansel’s strange fairytale
Elon Musk may have competition for quirkiest electric vehicle CEO: Bryan Hansel of the electric van start-up Chanje. Hansel founded the company after going to Brazil and taking the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca in 2015 – or so the story goes. Chanje quickly made waves in the EV sector, supplying FedEx with vehicles and winning interest from Amazon in its imported Chinese vehicles. At the time it was ahead of the Tesla curve, with 100kWh battery packs and a solid 150 miles of range (even if Hansel’s mandatory meditation and personal growth targets for employees were ridiculed). But as Verge reports, the company quietly folded this summer after its key Chinese investor, Five Dragons, went bankrupt sinking millions of dollars into an unsuccessful Mongolian toll road. FedEx is now suing Chanje for $4 million it says it’s owed. Another creditor is suing for $3 million and at least four employees are suing for months of missing backpay. Hansel, undeterred, is already on his next project, selling personal and professional development programmes that promise to “increase financial results” and “enhance accountability”. There’s nothing like first-hand experience. 


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Barter economics
A TikTokker from California has successfully traded a hairpin for a house. Like many of us in the first months of Covid lockdown, Demi Skipper found herself with time on her hands, but instead of channeling her extra hours into baking banana bread or making her own kombucha, she embarked on a project to “trade-up” from a single hair slide until she got a house. Skipper sourced each item to trade on sites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace and documented the process on TikTok, initially for an audience of zero. After four trades she’d gone from a hair pin to a snowboard – and her quest had gone viral. It’s taken 18 months and 28 trades in all but earlier this week, Skipper got the keys to a house in Clarksville, Tennessee. The final trade was helped by Skipper’s TikTok fame: a house-flipper had been keeping an eye on her account until a suitable item to trade came up. Skipper is not quite a pioneer: fifteen years ago, Kyle MacDonald, a Canadian blogger, traded his way from a paperclip to a farmhouse in Saskatchewan.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Phoebe Davis
@phoebe_ivy

Edited by Xavier Greenwood and produced by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs David Higginbotham/NASA, ESA, Getty Images