NASA did not equip the James Webb Space Telescope with cameras. Here’s why.

The big picture: When the James Webb Space Telescope was launched into space on Christmas Day, some were surprised to learn that the observatory was not equipped with cameras that would allow us to follow its journey from Earth to its destination in second Lagrange point about a month later. Turns out there are plenty of good reasons NASA left them out.

The space agency in a recent Twitter thread said that for starters, the gold-plated mirrors on Webb are very photogenic here on Earth, but Webb’s mirror side is very dark in space. The sun-facing side, meanwhile, is so bright that cameras would struggle to resolve glare and contrast issues.

The cameras would have forced NASA to run more cables and allocate power to them. “More cables add a threat of heat and vibration transfer through the wires, which could impact picture quality,” NASA said.

Additionally, NASA should have designed a special camera for the cold side of the sun visor because plastic shrinks, cracks and disintegrates in very freezing temperatures, and the glue does not hold together.

Additionally, Webb is already big and very complex with multiple deployments that all need to be done in space without a hitch. Adding more hardware would only complicate matters further and then you will have to figure out where to position them so that they don’t interfere with other instruments.

This does not mean that the cameras were not taken into account. In fact, engineers simulated and tested some large-scale camera schematics during the development process, but found that they didn’t add enough value to make them useful.

To keep an eye on the telescope, NASA instead outfitted Webb with plenty of mechanical, thermal, and electrical sensors that provide valuable telemetry on the craft and help paint a picture of what exactly is happening at any given time.


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