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NASA hasn’t equipped the James Webb Space Telescope with cameras. That’s why

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 trace its journey from Earth to its destination at the second Lagrange point in about a month. As it turns out, there are many good reasons why NASA has dropped them.

The space agency tweeted recently that, first, the gold-plated mirrors on Webb were very photogenic here on Earth, but Webb’s mirrored side in space is completely dark. The side facing the sun, meanwhile, is so shiny that cameras will struggle with glare and contrast issues.

The cameras would require NASA to run more cables and allocate power to them. “More cables increase the threat of heat transfer and vibration through the wires, which can affect image quality,” NASA said.

What’s more, NASA would have to develop a special camera for the cold side of the sun visor, as the plastic shrinks, cracks and falls apart at very low temperatures, and the glue doesn’t stick together.

Plus, Webb is already big and very complex, with multiple deployments all to be done in space without a hitch. Adding additional hardware will only complicate things further, and then you’ll have to figure out where to place them so they don’t interfere with other tools.

This does not mean that the cameras were not considered. In fact, engineers modeled and tested some of the camera layouts at full scale during development, but found they did not add enough value to make them worthwhile.

To keep an eye on the telescope, NASA has instead equipped Webb with numerous mechanical, thermal and electrical sensors that provide valuable telemetry about the ship and help paint an accurate picture of what is happening at any given time.


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