HoM Meets the James Webb Space Telescope

by Art Costa, Co-director, The Institute for Habits of Mind
and Craig Gastauer, Life Science Teacher, Vista High School,
Vista Unified School District

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Conceived in September 1989 and launched into space on Christmas day, 2021, the gift of JWST will explore the mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the intriguing structures and origins of our universe and our place in it.

Learning about the James Space Webb Telescope provides opportunities to gain more knowledge and understanding of principles such as gravity and propulsion, measuring space in light years, the big bang theory, infrared technology and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. Besides the knowledge that it will yield, it also provides examples of the scientific method at work: forming theories to explain the mysteries of the universe, designing methods for gathering and analyzing data to support those theories and posing additional questions to guide future experiments.

Could the JWST have been conceived, constructed, and implemented without the Habits of Mind?

See below.

Habit of MindJWST


Thinking About Your Thinking


Although it wasn’t designed to be serviced and upgraded, it could potentially be robotically refueled to extend its life. It seems a pity that Webb’s lifetime, after all of this effort, will be so finite. Sure, 5-to-10 years is enough time to learn a tremendous amount about the Universe, meeting a large number of ambitious science goals and opening ourselves up to possibility of serendipitous discoveries that we have perhaps not even yet imagined. But after all that we’ve been through with development and delays, it seems insufficient that James Webb will have a lifetime that’s cumulatively shorter than the full extent of its time here on Earth.

But there’s hope.

There’s a refueling port that, if we develop the right uncrewed technology, we could access. If we can get to L2, dock with James Webb, access the refueling port, and refuel it then the mission’s lifetime could be extended by a decade or more with each refuel. There have been rumors that the German Aerospace Center, DLR, could potentially perform exactly this type of operation before Webb reaches the end of its life, presumably in the early 2030s. If Webb works exactly as designed and is, as expected, fuel-limited, it might be the ultimate exercise in wasteful foolishness not to pursue that option.

With launch, deployment, calibration, and science operations about to commence, here are 10 facts that are absolutely true.




It took ten years to construct, test, revise and prepare this for launch and implementation.

In fact, the JWST vision began in 1989 and had its share of successes and setbacks which included being almost completely canceled when the US House Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee proposed cutting NASA’s budget in 2011 to pre-2008 levels which would have completely terminated the JWST project.

Astronomers, and scientists in general, fought to prevent the proposal from becoming reality.

Here’s a summary of JWST’s long and fascinating history.


Managing Impulsivity


New James Webb Data Suggests The “Big Bang” Never Happened, According To Some

Alison Kirkpatrick, an astronomer at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, says, “Right now I find myself lying awake at three in the morning and wondering if everything I’ve done is wrong.”

It’s interesting to discover that many in the field do not accept the Big Bang theory as a plausible explanation of creation. Despite a large number of skeptics, much of the citizenry is simply taught and encouraged to accept the Big Bang as an absolute explanation, challenged only by religious theories around creation.

When one digs deep into these topics, it’s not hard to see how much we don’t know. Perhaps the lack an absolute truth almost forces humans to make up their own as sitting with the unknown can be uncomfortable. This is something we’ve seen happen many times throughout history.

The Big Bang singularity arises from the math of general relativity. But it’s a problem because the math only explains what happened immediately after—not at or before—the singularity. But quantum physics has and is changing our understanding and perceptions of general relativity.


Striving for Accuracy


Committed to collecting and analyzing data as the telescope traveled one million miles through space.

Comparing progress to expected trajectories and performing course altering corrections to ensure the James Webb ends up in a precise location.

The JWST and the Hubble Telescope will continue to collect data from the same parts of space to check the validity of data and add support to formulated conclusions.

“It starts with one star…. Right now, we’re getting 18 separate blurry images, but when we’re done, we’ll see one bright star. And that’s when we’re going to know we’ve built a perfect telescope.”

Watch this video from PBS/NOVA which describes how a team of scientists were able to focus the different mirrors to begin collecting images from our vast universe.


Listening with
Understanding and Empathy


“Science doesn’t often leave opportunity for exhilaration, but that’s what that moment was like for those of us who were in the room.”

Observers’ reactions:

“Today, Christmas 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope was launched into space from the French Guyana. I watched it live and… well… here’s my reaction. OMG! ——– “

“This is an astronomer and fan video for astronomers and fans, with the only purpose to share our love for space exploration and research. It is NOT for sale or trade.”

Jane Rigby, the operations project scientist for Webb at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told us what it was like to be supporting the launch from the Mission Operations Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore:

“Launch day. It’s 7:00am, and I’m at the Mission Operations Center, ‘the MOC’ — mission control to regular folks, for the launch of JWST. I’m wearing a mission patch polo and a headset. We launch in twenty minutes. The mood here is nervous, excited, and ready. I hear laughter in the hallways and see grim eyes over KN95 masks. We know that the future of NASA science is at stake. We know how audaciously hard the task will be. We know how many times we rehearsed. Now we do it for real.”

What it felt like at Mission Ops Control when we launched JWST

Watch this video to feel the rollercoaster of emotions from an astrophysicist’s perspective in England


Thinking Flexibly


The telescope is intentionally set up to provide different images of any object / field of view by using Four Different Imaging Tools that recognize different wavelengths on the light spectrum.

There was a desperate need to test the strength and temperature sensitivity of the JWST to ensure that it would be able to handle the extreme condition in space. Unfortunately, they “couldn’t just stick the entire observatory in one vacuum chamber and duplicate everything at the same time.”

Here is a link to how the team had to do some out of the box thinking to break the JWST into different parts to different tests at different times (and how the testing survived Hurricane Harvey!).


Questioning and Posing Problems


Its purpose is set around specific questions / problems that NASA and other space agencies are trying to answer (the following are only a few):

  • How long did it take for the first galaxies to be able to form after the Big Bang?
  • How did the first galaxies form?
  • How do the oldest galaxies differ from younger galaxies?
  • How do galaxies evolve over time?
  • How are the chemical elements distributed through the galaxies?
  • How do the central black holes in galaxies influence their host galaxies?
  • What happens when small and large galaxies collide or join together?


Looking deeper into space means looking at objects that are moving quickly away from us which causes something called “redshift.” How were the JWST scientists able to correct for this problem?


Thinking Interdependently


1000s of engineers and hundreds of scientists worked to create the Webb Telescope.

Its creation was a collaboration of over 300 universities, organizations, and companies from 29 US States and 14 countries working together.

Learn more about the different teams who have been part of this incredible work.


Thinking and Communicating
with Clarity and Precision


NASA has adopted the following guidelines for communicating technical information to a non-technical audience:

Put your bottom-line up front: Policy makers often evaluate the utility of a conversation or document within the first minute. Instead of slowly building to the main conclusion, as you would in an academic paper, it is best to lead with what you want them to do or know and then work backwards from there.

Be clear and concise: Policy makers tend not to read documents longer than a single page or listen to a talk longer than 15 minutes. Make every word count.

Make recommendations specific: The easier you can make it for a policy maker to implement a recommendation, the more likely it is that they will act on it. The best recommendations are the ones that tell a policy maker exactly what they should do the moment they walk out of the meeting, all the way through to the final implementation.


Applying Past Knowledge
to New Situations


The current orbit location has been used previously by the Herschel Space Telescope and Planck Space Observatory as a stable location for observation.


Gathering Data
through All Senses


The JWST primarily collects a type of light that our eyes can’t see. The JWST is a 21-foot-wide infrared telescope made of 18 individual hexagonal mirror pieces orbiting in space. The mirror segments are positioned precisely. so that together, they form a curved bowl shape. This curved shape allows the JWST to collect and focus light.

JWST is equipped with instruments that are sensitive to infrared (heat) radiation³ that gives it the ability to detect light beyond the visible spectrum and allows astronomers to observe faraway distant objects (mainly in the “hidden” regions of the universe) at infrared wavelength

The JWST captured its first images of starlight. The first image taken was of a star called HD 84406. Light from HD84406 was captured by Webb’s 18 mirror segments located on the primary mirror, resulting in a mosaic of 18 scattered bright dots.


Creating, Imagining and Innovating


Work began over 30 years ago when institute Director Ricardo Giacconi challenged the group to “think about the next major mission beyond Hubble”. The development of a mission concept came in September 1989 with a workshop held before Hubble was launched. The workshop, titled “The Next Generation,” covered the scientific opportunities and technological challenges of such a mission and built on earlier research up to that date.


Taking Responsible Risks


Our assessment rolled up the most significant element of the JWST risk picture into two key risks: the potential for a non-catastrophic problem in commissioning the instruments after a largely successful deployment, and the potential for a mission failure due to failed critical deployment. It also removed some lingering questions many had about whether more deployment testing should be performed. The project knew it had literally done everything possible to make the mission a success but communicating why was a major challenge.

A well-timed, independent, aggregate risk assessment went a long way to providing a commonly understood statement of the remaining risk for stakeholders. With this, they could be confident that everything that could be done had been done so that they could be comfortable with the decision to ship for launch.

(How NASA decided Webb was ready: Inside the risk assessment. Feb 22)


Finding Humor


The world remains amazed at what human innovation and determination can achieve. The precision and clarity of the Webb astrophotography is quite astonishing, yet people wonder why security cameras and camera traps remain as rudimentary as they are.

French physicist shares a picture of Spanish Chorizo and claims it’s an image from the JWST…

The physicist claims the prank was to help people challenge their preconceptions and biases. → Personally, it reminds me to verify all sources of information!


Responding with
Wonderment and Awe


The James Webb Space Telescope is helping us uncover what happened in parts of our universe from 13,000,000,000 years ago.

The images it is capturing has better clarity and detail than anything we’ve ever seen before!

One set of data examined has found a galaxy that may be one of the very first formed after the Big Bang… -OR- could be found in a very different part of the galaxy indicating that it is much younger than originally thought. How could an observed galaxy potentially be in two very different spots in the universe?


Remaining Open
to Continuous Learning


Main purpose of the James Webb Space Telescope is to “uncover the history of the universe from the Big Bang to alien planet formation” and more.

In other words, its purpose is to test what we know and uncover more about the universe that we do not yet know.

The JWST is also collecting scientific proposals to learn more about the universe in ways not yet thought about. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) has set up a web resource to help scientists plan for and write proposals to use the JWST for learning more about our universe.

Teachers may wish to transform this information into a chart and invite students to add examples that can be found almost daily on the web.

Photo Credits:
SCIENCE: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Hubble Heritage Project (STScI, AURA)
IMAGE PROCESSING: Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

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