A team of engineers and scientists associated with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope participated in a Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) thread on Oct. 22.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the scientific successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, and it will be the most powerful space telescope ever built. It is being assembled in a Class 10,000 cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Webb is an international project led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency.
Registered Reddit users were allowed to submit questions to the team about the telescope and its future missions. Mark Clampin, James Webb Space Telescope Observatory Project Scientist, is one of the participants on determining exoplanet nature and conditions — he fielded this question from Controlled Environments:
CE: Can you tell us about the cleanroom in which the JWST is housed? How do you have to get prepped to enter it, and what systems are in place to guard against contamination?
Mark Clampin: The Bld. 29 cleanroom at the Goddard Space Flight Center (see http://jwst.gsfc.nasa.gov) does require very careful preparation to enter and work in it. It takes about 20-30 minutes to dress in the special clothing. One of the cleanroom walls is a giant HEPA filter, and the environment is carefully monitored.
Other Reddit users asked insightful questions that were answered by the JWST team. Here are some of the things we learned from the AMA session:
Q: How will the James Webb Space Telescope enhance NASA’s exoplanet-finding capabilities?
A: The James Webb Space Telescope will focus on studying exoplanets that are already known, in particular transiting exoplanet systems where it will be able to spectroscopically characterize molecular features in exoplanet atmospheres from 0.7-29 microns. It will search for young, gas giant planets using its high contrast imaging capabilities.
Read more: NASA Telescope Aces Super-Cold Optical Test
Q: What’s the story on this “alien structure” obstructing light from a star? I’ve seen a few articles lately.
A: SH – KIC 8462852 was recently reported in a paper submitted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society; NASA did not release any news on this. In that paper, the authors examined a number of possible sources for the unusual observed behavior of the star. Those authors found a plausible, naturally occurring phenomenon that could account for the observations. In the abstract, the authors state: “… considering the observational constraints on dust clumps orbiting a normal main-sequence star, we conclude that the scenario most consistent with the data in hand is the passage of a family of exocomet fragments, all of which are associated with a single previous breakup event.” There was another star, KIC 4110611 that too had an odd light curve, but after a few years of working to find out why, it turned out to be a five star system. It was unique, but not alien structures. We’re looking forward to more research on this enigmatic star to determine the cause of its interesting behavior.
Q: What do you think the cultural ramifications would be if even microscopic life was found on another planet?
A: This is one of the most intriguing questions out there right now, and would have a profound impact on the way we view ourselves. Our goal is to turn this from something people speculate about into something we can analyze with data and observations. And that moment could be within our grasp over the next generation
Read more: What Happened to Our Fascination With Space?
Q: If intelligent life is found in the universe and they want to contact/meet us, what will NASA do?
A: One thing to clear up — the VAST majority of the work we do on the search for life beyond Earth doesn’t look for intelligent life specifically. Some of the methods we plan to use could find signs of intelligent life, but they’re really designed to detect the global biospheres that (mostly) are driven by microbes. But to not dodge your question … if we got word of that, this would answer the question that drives a lot of our work! But, as we’re scientists and engineers … it would likely kick off more questions. We’d want to know what their planet is like — its climate and chemical composition, etc. (And we’d probably want to learn the things they know, too).
Q: If likely (to whatever degree of certainty you’re going for) habitable planets are discovered, what happens then? How would we proceed from there, how would we apply that knowledge?
A: We’ve found potentially habitable planets already! Unfortunately, most of these are too far away for follow-up observations. However, their presence — and their rate of occurrence — suggests that potentially habitable planets that are closer to us also exist. And we’re working on the science and technology and missions to confirm their habitability, and to find out if they have signs of life.
Q: What is your opinion on Elon Musk’s theory of using thermonuclear warheads to “heat up” Mars in order to give it an atmosphere? What are some other ways that have been considered an option for atmospheric generation and could this method be applied to planetary bodies in the “sweet spot” of other solar systems that lack atmosphere?
A: We’re on a journey to Mars with our partners, and we’re keenly interested in continuing to make important scientific discoveries about Mars and test new systems and capabilities needed to get humans there. We are also committed to promoting exploration of the solar system in a way that protects explored environments as they exist in their natural state. Check out this feature on planting a controlled ecosystem on Mars: http://www.nasa.gov/feature/planting-an-ecosystem-on-mars/
Q: What’s it like to work on NASA?
A: There is never a dull day here in the [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] newsroom! In the span of one morning (say, this morning), I got to try and wrap my brain around the alien ocean of Enceladus, emerging robotic technology like Robosimian, and the search for planets around other stars. NASA missions rely on collaboration between different NASA centers, and partner institutions like universities and federally-funded research and development centers. I get to work with smart, creative people who aren’t afraid to tackle big questions, and that’s a pretty great thing to have in a job.
NASA’s the best place to work if you are driven by curiosity and challenges. Everything scientists do here is cutting edge and pushes the boundaries of our technologies, our understanding of science, and the limits of our imagination. You need to be able to lake the long view: most of our missions take many years to come to fruition, and science rarely has quick discoveries made by lone researchers. People work in large teams for many years to make these discoveries.