NASA didn't equip the James Webb Space Telescope with cameras. Here's why.

Shawn Knight

Posts: 14,147   +154
Staff member
The big picture: When the James Webb Space Telescope launched into space on Christmas Day, some were surprised to learn the observatory wasn’t equipped with cameras that would allow us to follow its journey from Earth to its destination at the second Lagrange Point roughly a month later. As it turns out, there are plenty of good reasons why NASA left them off.

The space agency in a recent thread on Twitter said that for starters, the gold-coated mirrors on Webb were very photogenic here on Earth but the mirror side of Webb is pitch dark in space. The Sun-facing side, meanwhile, is so shiny that cameras would struggle with glare and contrast issues.

Cameras would have required NASA to run more cables and allocate power for them. “More cables adds more of a threat of heat and vibration transfer through the wires, which could impact image quality,” NASA said.

What’s more, NASA would have had to design a special camera for the cold side of the sunshield as plastic shrinks, cracks and falls apart at very frigid temperatures, and glue doesn’t hold together.

Furthermore, Webb is already big and very complex with multiple deployments that all have to be performed in space without a hitch. Adding additional hardware would only further complicate things and then, you’d have to figure out where to position them so they wouldn’t interfere with other instruments.

That’s not to say cameras weren’t considered. In fact, engineers mocked up and tested some camera schemes at full scale during the development process but found they did not add enough value to make them worthwhile.

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

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Lew Zealand

Posts: 2,151   +2,604
TechSpot Elite
NASA didn't equip the James Webb Space Telescope with cameras. Here's why:

This isn't a PR stunt, it's a $10,000,000,000 science experiment taking place 1,000,000 miles from the planet. Adding more complexity to the 300+ critical things it needs to do while on its way there would be sheer idiocy.

And you don't take pictures of Webb, Webb takes pictures of you.
 

mbk34

Posts: 309   +215
Personally, I think they missed a golden opportunity. It's a bit like Armstrong stepping onto the moon and saying nothing or the Mars rovers doing nothing but returning the chemical analysis of rocks. Expensive science like this is funded by the common people and people like to see a picture of where their money is going.
 

itgerald

Posts: 31   +26
Still don't understand. Even if it can't take clear pictures, at least unclear pictures is better than nothing along side its telemetry data. I believe+ is a wasted opportunity.
 

umbala

Posts: 605   +1,013
Personally, I think they missed a golden opportunity. It's a bit like Armstrong stepping onto the moon and saying nothing or the Mars rovers doing nothing but returning the chemical analysis of rocks. Expensive science like this is funded by the common people and people like to see a picture of where their money is going.
Uh, did you even read the article? One side of the instrument is pitch black and the other side is super shiny and reflective. What exactly did you want to see from those non-existent cameras? Photos of the earth getting smaller and smaller as the rocket leaves? We have plenty of images like that already.

Also, comparing the launch of a telescope to landing on the moon is just dumb.
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 7,706   +6,654
Cameras for us to see the space around would have been cool, really.
Like they said in the article, the camera would have physically cool. ;)

Once the journey to the L2 point is over and the real images from the scope, itself, start coming back, the images from such a camera would be boring, IMO. Hey guys, lets watch JWST taking pictures of the universe tonight! :laughing: I would rather watch Netflix. ;)

With all the telemetry coming back on the status of the various deployments involved in the "unfolding" of the scope, the mission technicians really don't need a camera to get a great picture of what is going on.
 

kiwigraeme

Posts: 1,051   +777
Have a camera housed in a tiny spherical virus shape vehicle - each spike can release propulsion . propels slowly out of compartment, circles around takes photos - back to garage , with built in charging . fuel line on lock in base (least 2 bases ) , data anyway you want .
I'm sure they with AI - can program - no turbulence outside non-fly times - solar storms , micro gravity . Can "hover" with no fuel expenditure .
Even have few time use super tiny ones - for repair analysis
 

Hexic

Posts: 1,221   +1,908
TechSpot Elite
Still don't understand. Even if it can't take clear pictures, at least unclear pictures is better than nothing along side its telemetry data. I believe+ is a wasted opportunity.

It’s not worth adding risk to the total unit (and other instruments) to add cameras. When you are designing instruments for space, it’s nothing like designing them here to survive Earth. Power is measured in microohms, and you must consider radiation at every step.

Power consumption is one of the biggest factors. It’s not as easy as slapping an extra Duracell in there. When you’re drawing power from solar arrays, each array “power line” if you will, can draw ‘X’ amount of power to the respective instrument(s) it’s powering. It’s a very delicate balance of what’s getting power, when, and management of said instruments.
 

umbala

Posts: 605   +1,013
How does the telescope take photos and send them back to Earth? It has a camera.
Man, comments like this just give me a headache. The telescope does NOT have a camera, but rather it IS a camera. So using your numb-nuts logic, why does a CAMERA need cameras attached?
 

Mr WW

Posts: 38   +8
I can't imagine that they've send a thing to an L2 point without tools to repair itself. A camera would be the first thing I would consider. The Mars rovers are all over camera's. is it 1 April?
 

mbk34

Posts: 309   +215
Uh, did you even read the article? One side of the instrument is pitch black and the other side is super shiny and reflective. What exactly did you want to see from those non-existent cameras? Photos of the earth getting smaller and smaller as the rocket leaves? We have plenty of images like that already.

Also, comparing the launch of a telescope to landing on the moon is just dumb.
Yes I read the article. It seems that if you can peer into the darkness 13.5 billion light years away then it shouldn't be too difficult to enhance the image of the telescope only meters away. If the camera is looking at a reflection then it should be easy to remove all parts of the image that are changing (the reflection) and enhance what remains. Failing that, you could always add the telescope into the picture in post processing as you know it's position and orientation exactly.

I wasn't comparing the telescope to the moon landing, I was referring to the lost opportunity of having no pictures.
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 7,706   +6,654
I can't imagine that they've send a thing to an L2 point without tools to repair itself. A camera would be the first thing I would consider. The Mars rovers are all over camera's. is it 1 April?
It's been known since inception that JWST would not be repairable, due to where it is going to operate, and had to be flawless in its construction as any failure would doom the mission. For that matter, none of the Mars Rovers are capable of self-repair cameras or not.
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 7,706   +6,654
Yes I read the article. It seems that if you can peer into the darkness 13.5 billion light years away then it shouldn't be too difficult to enhance the image of the telescope only meters away. If the camera is looking at a reflection then it should be easy to remove all parts of the image that are changing (the reflection) and enhance what remains. Failing that, you could always add the telescope into the picture in post processing as you know it's position and orientation exactly.

I wasn't comparing the telescope to the moon landing, I was referring to the lost opportunity of having no pictures.
Cameras, of the type mentioned in the article, were simply not needed to accomplish the science objectives of the mission - and that is what this mission is intended to do - science. They followed the (KISS) Keep It Simple Stupid principle.
 

TechZel

Posts: 23   +33
Yes I read the article. It seems that if you can peer into the darkness 13.5 billion light years away then it shouldn't be too difficult to enhance the image of the telescope only meters away. If the camera is looking at a reflection then it should be easy to remove all parts of the image that are changing (the reflection) and enhance what remains. Failing that, you could always add the telescope into the picture in post processing as you know it's position and orientation exactly.

I wasn't comparing the telescope to the moon landing, I was referring to the lost opportunity of having no pictures.

There are so many reasons why this suggestion is ridiculous and belies a complete lack of understanding of what you are talking about. The first being that it's an infra-red telescope.
 

mbk34

Posts: 309   +215
There are so many reasons why this suggestion is ridiculous and belies a complete lack of understanding of what you are talking about. The first being that it's an infra-red telescope.
Perhaps you could spend the time then to say why it's ridiculous. The JWST is an IR telescope but the attached (or non attached) camera that would take pictures of it would be a standard camera. The aim of the camera would be to keep public interest in the project (without public interest then there's no funding). The camera could also possibly be used for maintenance checks for instance when the solar shields get hit my micrometeorites etc.
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 7,706   +6,654
Perhaps you could spend the time then to say why it's ridiculous. The JWST is an IR telescope but the attached (or non attached) camera that would take pictures of it would be a standard camera. The aim of the camera would be to keep public interest in the project (without public interest then there's no funding). The camera could also possibly be used for maintenance checks for instance when the solar shields get hit my micrometeorites etc.
Public interest in the project will be maintained by the scientific images captured and released to the public. Personally, I cannot see that pictures, in the visible spectrum, of the satellite would or will maintain public interest. In no way, at this point, does the mission need public interest as it has a budget that is good for, at least, 10-years.

As to assessing damage, I am sure they have other ways of doing so without the need for a visible spectrum camera. The people who designed, built, launched, and are responsible for this mission saw no need for such a camera decided and, for their own reasons, to launch without one - even if it would have helped to assess damage. There is nothing that could be done about any such damage even with visual spectrum photographs of any such damage anyway so why add such a camera to an already complex mission?

There will, however, always be those who like to play "arm-chair mission scientist" and disagree with the decisions that were likely made by a committee of scientists - in other words - it is highly likely that no one individual was responsible for this decision. As a scientific decision, it was likely peer-reviewed and agreed up on by a peer group.

It does not have such a camera, and there is no way one can be added at this point - making such the presence or lack of such a camera a moot point.
 

mbk34

Posts: 309   +215
So your one reason to call my suggestion ridiculous was simply because other people had decided they wouldn't put a camera aboard. Perhaps it's time to grow up and stop being so condescending to others?
 

TechZel

Posts: 23   +33
So your one reason to call my suggestion ridiculous was simply because other people had decided they wouldn't put a camera aboard. Perhaps it's time to grow up and stop being so condescending to others?
Did you read the article? It's very light on detail, but take note of the quote “More cables adds more of a threat of heat and vibration transfer through the wires, which could impact image quality”. That's important.

The telescope is designed to collect infrared light from so far away that it's literally getting only a single photon per second across the entire mirror array. That means the mirror and the instruments need to operate in darkness and at a temperature of minus 230 degrees Celsius, because light and heat = IR and you don't want IR from anything other than what you're pointing it at. So if you stick a camera on it, you have to account for the heat of the camera and its circuitry emitting IR and affecting your instruments. But in order for the camera to actually see anything you'd also need to stick lights on the telescope and now you have to worry about the IR emissions from those too. The satellite has to adjust its mirrors on the nanometre scale, so even tiny amounts of heat can affect their alignment due to thermal expansion - not to mention the IR emitted due to said heat being able to contaminate the images directly. And all this is before you take into account the electromagnetic force caused by current running through wires to power this camera, which is the "vibration" part of that quote. And even if you intend to use the camera only during the deployment phase and turn it off afterwards, you need to account for its potential to conduct heat from other areas of the satellite via its circuitry (copper is a fantastic heat conductor), because that would again cause IR emissions.

TL;DR even if they had installed a camera it cannot be used during the operation of the telescope, and risks ruining everything even if you leave it turned off.

So they made the right call to not risk ****ing up a 10 billion dollar project because some people want pretty pictures of a telescope of which we already have plenty from when it was here on Earth. The pictures we get from the telescope itself are going to be far more interesting.