E Pluribus

Mr Feder’s a determined fault‑finder. “That gold on James Webb Space Telescope‘s mirror — it’s gonna make all its pictures look funny, yellow‑like instead of whatever the real colors are.”

Cathleen bristles a little. “We astronomers have built our science on recognizing. accounting for and overcoming instrument limitations. Hubble, for instance, went up with a mirror that had been misground so its resolution was a factor of 10 worse than it was supposed to be. It took three years for NASA to install corrective optics. In the meantime we devised a whole catalog of math and computer techniques for pulling usable data out of the mess. Anyway, JWST‘s not designed to make pretty pictures.”

“I thought it was gonna replace Hubble. If it can’t take pictures, what’re we putting it up there for?”

“It’s a successor, not a replacement. JWST is designed to answer a completely different set of questions from the ones that Hubble has been used for. I’m sure we’ll keep using Hubble for as long as it continues to operate. By the way, the Hubble pictures you’ve seen aren’t what Hubble took.”

“Bunk! I’ve seen Hubble shots of the Moon and they look just like what I see through my binocs. Same colors and everything.”

“Not much color in the Moon, Mr Feder. Just different grays except for during a lunar eclipse.”

“That’s true, Al, but the resemblance is no accident. All major telescopes including Hubble, gray‑scale is all they do. Professional and amateur scientists help out by combining and coloring those gray‑scale images.”

“Wait, how do they combine images? Back in the film days I’d forget to wind forward after taking a picture and the double exposures were always a mess.”

“Film and digital are very different technologies, Mr Feder. The sensors in your camera’s film were microscopic silver halide crystals embedded in the coating. Each photon that reached a crystal transformed one silver ion to elemental silver and darkened the image there just a bit. More photons in a particular area, more darkening. There’s no reset, so when you clicked twice on a frame the new darkening supplemented what was already there. Those silver atoms and their location on the film encoded the photos you took.”

<with a sneer> “Wooo — encoded! What’d the processing labs do, count the atoms?”

“In an analog sort of way. Your lab made positive prints by shining light through your negatives onto photosensitive paper that worked the same way as the film. Shadow from the negative’s dark silver atoms prevented silver ion darkening in the corresponding part of the paper. What was bright in the original scene came out bright in the print. And viceversa.”

“But I was taking color photos.”

“Same analog scheme but with fancier chemistry. Your color film had three photosensitive layers. Each layer was designed to record a different set of wavelengths, red, green or blue. Blue photons would darken the bluesensitive layer and so on. From then on the encoding and decoding logic worked the same, color by separate color. Your eyes combine the colors. JWST‘s cameras don’t do any of that.”

“I guess not, it being a million miles away from processing labs.”

“Right, we can only work with numbers that can be transmitted back to Earth. Modern telescopes use digital sensors, dense grids of transistorsize devices that literally count the photons that strike them. Graph how many photons hit each part of the grid during an interval and you’ve got a picture. Better yet, you can do arithmetic on the counts. That opens up a world of analytical and pictorial opportunities that were tedious or impossible with photographic data.” <opens laptop, taps keys> “Here’s a lovely example I recently received from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day service. Gorgeous, hm?”

Symbiotic R Aquarii” — Image Credit: Optical (red, blue): NASA/ESA/STScI;
X-ray (purple): NASA/CXC/SAO/R. Montez et al.;
Processing: Judy Schmidt (CC BY-NC-SA)


“Image arithmetic in action. That’s two stars in weird orbits around each other. Ms Schmidt combined two Hubble images with one from Chandra, a separate telescope looking at a different part of the spectrum. Old‑style astrophotography couldn’t do that.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

Al’s face takes on a far-away smile. “James Webb Space Telescope must look pretty up there — a golden honeycomb on a silver setting, floating in space.”

“Real artistic and all, but how come all that gold? The mirror’s what, 60 feet across. Half of that is 30 for the radius, square it is 900, times 3 plus a little for pi, makes like 3000 square feet. That’s a lot of gold and us taxpayers sent it up to space! Why not make it shiny with something cheaper?”

“Nice on-the-fly math, Mr Feder, but it’s much less gold than you think. Ever play with gold leaf?”

“Yeah, once when my cousin was decorating one of her artsy‑tartsy ceramic pieces. I went to pick up one of her leftover scraps and my breath blew it away.”

“Thin, huh? One of my astronomy magazines had an article, said the gold coating on the JWST‘s dish is only a little thicker than gold leaf, just 1000 atoms top to bottom. They don’t even apply it with a brush like people usually do. Your cousin may have artisan‑level skills but her manual techniques can’t match the precision JWST‘s design demands. The fabricators used a vapor deposition process like the semiconductor people use to make computer chips.”

“So how much gold?”

“Less than three grams per segment. That ring on your finger weighs more. The article said each segment has about $180 worth of gold, pretty small compared to the project’s ten billion dollar price tag.”

“Even so, why gold? Why not something cheaper?”

“I dunno. I see it a lot on different missions. The Insight Mars lander’s below‑deck electronics section was shrouded with gold-covered plastic panels. What’s the story, Sy?”

“Gold’s a special metal, Al. It ranks up with copper and silver for electrical conductivity but unlike them it doesn’t corrode. That’s why so many electrical switches and data cables use a thin layer of it at the contact points. The conductivity comes from the metal’s high concentration of free electrons, like an ocean of them sloshing around the atomic lattice. The free electrons also make gold an efficient reflector for electromagnetic radiation all across the spectrum from UV light way down into the radio range. The engineers for Insight and a lot of other missions put a thin gold layer on those insulation panels to protect the plastic from incoming high‑energy photons that would break up the polymer molecules. JWST needs to send every passing photon into the satellite’s detectors so gold’s high reflectivity made it the obvious candidate for the mirror coating.”

“I wonder if I’ll be able to see that honeycomb through my backyard telescope.”

“We can put numbers to that.” <drawing Old Reliable from its holster and tapping screen‑keys> “Lessee … using the small angle approximation for the sine function, to resolve a grid of 20-foot hexagons a million miles away you’d need an angular resolution of
  (20 feet) / [(106 miles)*(5280 feet/mile)]
   = 3.8×10-9 radians = 784 micro‑arcseconds

For yellow light’s 570‑nanometer wavelength, Rayleigh’s angular resolution formula gives
  aperture diameter
   =1.22*(wavelength)/(angle in radians) = 1.22*570×10-9/3.8×10-9 = 183 meters.
You’d need a telescope with a 550‑foot front end. If I remember right, Al, that’s almost ten times the width of your yard. You’d need at least a 60‑meter mirror just to see the entire dish as anything more than a yellow speckle.”

“Even with a scope like that Al would have a problem, Sy.”

“What’s that, Cathleen?”

“Viewed from the Sun, JWST‘s orbit looks straightforward — a half‑million‑mile half‑year vertical loop around the Sun‑Earth L2 point that itself circles the Sun once a year. Viewed from Earth, though, it’s a far more complicated motion. Earth’s orbit parallels JWST‘s so half the time JWST leads Earth and half it lags behind. At the extremes, JWST scoots along at twice Earth’s speed or else it appears to stop against the background stars. It’d be a challenging target for a star‑tracker program without a minute‑by‑minute computerized ephemeris.”

“He wouldn’t see the honeycomb even with that scope, Moire. JWST‘s always gonna point away from the Sun and us. The only view we’ll ever get is that pink parasol.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Which Way Is Up?

“OK, Moire, the Attitude Control System’s reaction wheels swing James Webb Space Telescope through whatever angle changes it wants, but how does ACS know what direction JWST‘s at to begin with? Does it go searching through that million‑star catalog to find something that matches?”

“Hardly, Mr Feder, that’d be way too much work for a shipboard computer. No, ACS consults the orientations maintained by a set of gyroscopes that are mounted on JWST‘s framework. Each one points along an unvarying bearing relative to the Universe, no matter how the satellite’s situated.”

“Gyroscopes? Like the one I had as a kid? Winding the string around the axle was a pain and then however hard I pulled the string I couldn’t keep one going for more than half a minute. It always wobbled anyway. Bad choice.”

“Not the JWST choice, NASA mostly doesn’t do toys. Actually, the gyroscope you remember has a long and honorable history. Gimbals have been known and used in one form or another for centuries. A few researchers mounted a rotor inside a gimbal set for various purposes in the mid‑1800s, but it was Léon Foucault who named his gadget a gyroscope when he used one for a public demonstration of the Earth’s rotation. People used to go to lectures like we go to a show. Science was popular in those days.”

“Wait — Foucault? The pendulum guy?”
 ”Wait — Foucault? The knife‑edge test guy?”

“Our science museum used to have a big pendulum. I loved to watch it knock down those domino thingies one by one as it turned around its circle. Then they took it out to make room for another dinosaur or something.”

“Yup. A museum’s most precious resource is floorspace. That weight swinging on a long wire takes up a lot of square feet. Foucault’s pendulum was another of his Earth‑rotation demonstrations, just a year after the gyroscope show. Yeah, Al, same guy — Foucault invented that technique you use to check your telescope mirrors. He pioneered a lot of Physics. He showed that the absorption spectrum of a gas when a light shines through it matches the spectrum it emits when you heat it up. His lightspeed measurement came within one percent of our currently accepted value. ”

Astronomer Cathleen shakes her head. “Imagine, 200 years after Kepler and Newton, yet people in Foucault’s day still needed convincing that the Earth is a globe floating in space. A century and a half later some still do. <sigh> Funny, isn’t it, how Foucault was working at the same time on two such different phenomena.”

“Not so different, Cathleen. Both demonstrate the same underlying principle — inertia relates to the Universe and doesn’t care about local conditions. Foucault was really working on inertia. He made use of two different inertial effects for his demonstrations. By the way, Mr Feder, the pendulum doesn’t turn. The Earth turns beneath the pendulum to bring those domino thingies into target position.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“Could be why his demonstrations used two different phenomena. Given 19th Century technology, those were probably his best options.”

“If only he’d had lasers, huh?”

“One kind of modern gyroscope is laser‑based. Uses photons going around a ring. Actually, photons or pulses of them going around the same ring in opposite directions. When the ring itself rotates, the photons or pulses going against the rotation encounter the Start point sooner than their opposites do. Time the difference and you can figure the rotation rate. Unfortunately, Foucault didn’t have lasers or the exquisite timing devices we have today. But that’s not the kind of gyroscope JWST carries, anyway.”

“OK, I’ll bite. What does it use?”

“The slickest one yet, Al. If you carefully tap the rim of a good wine glass it’ll vibrate like the red line here. The dotted blue circle’s the glass at rest. Under the right conditions inertia holds the planes of vibration steady even if the glass itself rotates. People have figured out how to use that principle to build extremely accurate. reliable and low‑maintenance gyroscopes for measuring and stabilizing rotations. JWST carries a set.”

“Nothing to lubricate, eh?”

Portrait of Léon Foucault from Wikimedia under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

~~ Rich Olcott

Turn This Way to Turn That Way

“I don’t understand, Sy. I get that James Webb Space Telescope uses its reaction wheels like a ship uses a rudder to change direction by pushing against something outside. Except the rudder pushes against water but the reaction wheels push against … what, the Universe?”

“Maybe probably, Al. We simply don’t know how inertia works. Newton just took inertia as a given. His Laws of Motion say that things remain at rest or persist in linear motion unless acted upon by some force. He didn’t say why. Einstein’s General Relativity starts from his Equivalence Principle — gravitational inertia is identical to mechanical inertia. That’s held up to painstaking experimental tests, but why it works is still an open question. Einstein liked Mach’s explanation, that we experience these inertias because matter interacts somehow with the rest of the Universe. He didn’t speculate how that interaction works because he didn’t like Action At A Distance. The quantum field theory people say that everything’s part of the universal field structure, which sounds cool but doesn’t help much. String theory … ’nuff said.”

“Hey, Moire, what’s all that got to do with the reaction wheel thing? JWST can push against one all it wants but it won’t go anywhere ’cause the wheel’s inside it. What’s magic about the wheels?”

JWST doesn’t want to go anywhere else, Mr Feder. We’re happy with it being in its proper orbit, but it needs to be able to point to different angles. Reaction wheels and gyroscopes are all about angular momentum, not about the linear kind that’s involved with moving from place to place.”

“HAH! JWST is moving place to place, in that orbit! Ain’t it got linear momentum then?”

Newton’s Principia, Proposition II, Theorem II

“In a limited way, pun intended. Angular momentum is linear momentum plus a radial constraint. This goes back to Newton and his Principia book. I’ve got a copy of his basic arc‑splitting diagram here in Old Reliable. The ABCDEF line is a section of some curve around point S. He treated it as a succession of short line segments ABc, BCd, CDe and so on. If JWST is at point B, for instance, Newton would say that it’s traveling with a certain linear momentum along the BCd line. However, it’s constrained to move along the arc so it winds up at D instead d. To account for the constraint Newton invented centripetal force to pull along the Sd line. He then mentally made the steps smaller and smaller until the sequence of short lines matched the curve. At the limit, a sequence of little bits of linear momentum becomes angular momentum. By the way, this step‑reduction process is at the heart of calculus. Anyway, JWST uses its reaction wheels to swing itself around, not to propel itself.”

“And we’re back to my original question, Sy. What makes that swinging happen?”

“Oh, you mean the mechanical reality. Easy, Al. Like I said, three pairs of motorized wheels are mounted on JWST‘s frame near the center of mass. Their axles are at mutual right angles. Change a wheel’s angular momentum, you get an equal opposing change to the satellite’s. Suppose the Attitude Control System wants the satellite to swing to starboard. That’d be clockwise viewed from the cold side. ACS must tell a port/starboard motor to spin its wheel faster counterclockwise. If it’s already spinning clockwise, the command would be to put on the brakes, right? Either way, JWST swings clockwise. With the forward/aft motors and the hot‑side/cold‑side motors, the ACS is equipped to get to any orientation. See how that works?”

“Hang on.” <handwaving ensues> “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Hey, Moire. What if the wheel’s already spinning at top speed in the direction the ACS wants more of?”

“Ah, that calls for a momentum dump. JWST‘s equipped with eight small rocket engines called thrusters. They convert angular momentum back to linear momentum in rocket exhaust. Suppose we need a further turn to starboard but a port/starboard wheel is nearing threshold spin rate. ACS puts the brakes on that wheel, which by itself would turn the satellite to port. However, ACS simultaneously activates selected thrusters to oppose the portward slew. Cute, huh?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Attitude Adjustment

Mr Feder has a snarky grin on his face and a far‑away look in his eye. “Got another one. James Webb Space Telescope flies in this big circle crosswise to the Sun‑Earth line, right? But the Earth doesn’t stand still, it goes around the Sun, right? The circle keeps JWST the same distance from the Sun in maybe January, but it’ll fly towards the Sun three months later and get flung out of position.” <grabs a paper napkin> “Lemme show you. Like this and … like this.”

“Sorry, Mr Feder, that’s not how either JWST or L2 works. The satellite’s on a 6-month orbit around L2 — spiraling, not flinging. Your thinking would be correct for a solid gyroscope but it doesn’t apply to how JWST keeps station around L2. Show him, Sy.”

“Gimme a sec with Old Reliable, Cathleen.” <tapping> “OK, here’s an animation over a few months. What happens to JWST goes back to why L2 is a special point. The five Lagrange points are all about balance. Near L2 JWST will feel gravitational pulls towards the Sun and the Earth, but their combined attraction is opposed by the centrifugal force acting to move the satellite further out. L2 is where the three balance out radially. But JWST and anything else near the extended Sun‑Earth line are affected by an additional blended force pointing toward the line itself. If you’re close to it, sideways gravitational forces from the Sun and the Earth combine to attract you back towards the line where the sideways forces balance out. Doesn’t matter whether you’re north or south, spinward or widdershins, you’ll be drawn back to the line.”

Al’s on refill patrol, eavesdropping a little of course. He gets to our table, puts down the coffee pot and pulls up a chair. “You’re talking about the JWST. Can someone answer a question for me?”

“We can try.”
 ”What’s the question?”
  Mr Feder, not being the guy asking the question, pooches out his lower lip.

“OK, how do they get it to point in the right direction and stay there? My little backyard telescope gives me fits just centering on some star. That’s while the tripod’s standing on good, solid Earth. JWST‘s out there standing on nothing.”

JWST‘s Attitude Control System has a whole set of functions to do that. It monitors JWST‘s current orientation. It accepts targeting orders for where to point the scope. It computes scope and satellite rotations to get from here to there. Then it revises as necessary in case the first‑draft rotations would swing JWST‘s cold side into the sunlight. It picks a convenient guide star from its million‑star catalog. Finally, ACS commands its attitude control motors to swing everything into the new position. Every few milliseconds it checks the guide star’s image in a separate sensor and issues tweak commands to keep the scope in proper orientation.”

“I get the sequence, Sy, but it doesn’t answer the how. They can’t use rockets for all that maneuvering or they’d run out of fuel real fast.”

“Not to mention cluttering up the view field with exhaust gases.”

“Good point, Cathleen. You’re right, Al, they don’t use rockets, they use reaction wheels, mostly.”

“Uh-oh, didn’t broken reaction wheels kill Kepler and a few other missions?”

“That sounds familiar, Mr Feder. What’s a reaction wheel, Sy, and don’t they put JWST in jeopardy?”

 Gyroscope, image by Lucas Vieira

“A reaction wheel is a massive doughnut that can spin at high speed, like a classical gyroscope but not on gimbals.”

“Hey, Moire, what’s a gimbal?”

“It’s a rotating frame with two pivots for something else that rotates. Two or three gimbals at mutual right angles let what’s inside orient independent of what’s outside. The difference between a classical gyroscope and a reaction wheel is that the gyroscope’s pivots rotate freely but the reaction wheel’s axis is fixed to a structure. Operationally, the difference is that you use a gyroscope’s angular inertia to detect change of orientation but you push against a reaction wheel’s angular inertia to create a change of orientation.”

“What about the jeopardy?”

Kepler‘s failing wheels used metal bearings. JWST‘s are hardened ceramic.”


~~ Rich Olcott

Pinks In Space

Mr Feder, of Fort Lee NJ, is outraged. “A pretty pink parasol? NASA spent taxpayer dollars to decorate the James Webb Space Telescope with froufrou like that?”

Astronomer Cathleen stays cool. “Certainly not, Mr Feder. This is no effete Victorian‑era parasol. It’s a big, muscular ‘defender against the Sun,’ which is what the word means when you break it down — para‑sol. Long and wide as a tennis court. Its job is to fight off the Sun’s radiation and keep JWST‘s cold side hundreds of degrees colder than the Sunfacing side. Five layers of highstrength Kapton film, the same kind that helped protect New Horizons against freezing and micrometeorites on its way to Pluto and beyond. Each layer carries a thin coat of aluminum, looks like a space blanket or those Mylar mirror balloons but this is a different kind of plastic.”

“Sounds like a lot of trouble for insulation. Why not just go with firebrick backed up with cinder blocks? That’s what my cousin used for her pottery kiln.”

I cut in, because Physics. “Two reasons, Mr Feder. First one is mass. Did you help your cousin build her kiln?”

“Nah, bad back, can’t do heavy lifting.”

“There you go. On a space mission, every gram and cubic centimeter costs big bucks. On a benefit/cost scale of 1 to 10, cinder blocks rate at, oh, about ½. But the more important reason is that cinder blocks don’t really address the problem.”

“They keep the heat in that kiln real good.”

“Sure they do, but on JWST‘s hot side the problem is getting rid of heat, not holding onto it. That’s the second reason your blocks fail the suitability test. Sunlight at JWST ‘s orbit will be powerful enough to heat the satellite by hundreds of degrees, your choice of Fahrenheit or centigrade. That’s a lot of heat energy to expel. Convection is a good way to shed heat but there’s no air in space so that’s not an option. Conduction isn’t either, because the only place to conduct the heat to is exactly where we don’t want it — the scope’s dish and instrument packages. Cinder blocks don’t conduct heat as well as metals do, but they do it a lot better than vacuum does.”

“So that leaves what, radiating it away?”


“Aluminum on the plastic makes it a good radiator, huh?”

“Sort of. The combo’s a good reflector, which is one kind of radiating.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“It’s not a perfect reflector. The challenge is 250 kilowatts of sunlight. Each layer blocks 99.9% but that still lets 0.1% through to heat up what’s behind it. The parasol has radiate away virtually all the incoming energy. That’s why there’s five layers and they’re not touching so they can’t conduct heat to each other.”

“Wait, they can still radiate to each other. Heat bounces back and forth like between two mirrors, builds up until the whole thing bursts into flames. Dumb design.”

“No flames, despite what the Space Wars movies show, because there’s no oxygen in space to support combustion. Besides, the designers were a lot smarter than that. The mirrors are at an angle to each other, just inches apart near the center, feet apart at the edges. Heat in the form of infrared light does indeed bounce between each pair of layers but it always bounces at an angle aimed outwards. The parasol’s edges will probably shine pretty brightly in the IR, but only from the sides and out of the telescope’s field of view.”

“OK, I can understand the aluminum shiny, but why make it pink?”

“That’s a thin extra coat of a doped silicon preparation, just on the outermost two layers. It’s not so good at reflection but when it heats up it’s good at emitting infrared. Just another way to radiate.”

“But it’s pink?”

“The molecules happen to be that color.”

“Why’s it dopey?”

“Doped, not dopey. Pure silicon is an electrical insulator. Mixing in the right amount of the right other atoms makes the coating a conductor so it can bleed off charge coming in on the solar wind.”

“Geez, they musta thought of everything.”

“They tried hard to.”

~~ Rich Olcott


“Hi, Cathleen, meet Mr Richard Feder, of Fort Lee NJ. He’s got a question that’s more in your Astronomy bailiwick than mine. Have a strawberry scone.”

“Mmm, still warm from Al’s oven. Thanks, Sy. Hello and what’s your question, Mr Feder?”

“Hiya. So if the James Webb Space Telescope is gonna be a million miles behind the Moon, won’t the Moon block its signals to us?”

“Oh dear, he said ‘miles.’ Sy, you’d better get out Old Reliable to look up numbers and do unit conversions. Mr Feder, I don’t think in miles.”

“Huh? What do you use instead, like paces or something?”

“Depends on what objects I’m considering and why I’m thinking about them. There are so many useful ratios out there it’s often easier to use ratios than huge numbers one can’t wrap one’s head around. Jupiter’s radius, for instance, is eleven times Earth’s, and the Sun is ten times wider still. Diameter and circumference follow the same ratios, of course. Square those ratios for relative surface area, cube them for relative volume. Who needs miles or kilometers?”

“Those numbers right, Moire?”

“Mmm … 6371 kilometers or 3959 miles for Earth, 71492 kilometers or 42441 miles for Jupiter, 695700 kilometers or 432300 miles for the Sun. The Jupiter/Earth ratio’s 11.2, the Sun/Jupiter ratio’s 9.73. The lady knows what she’s talking about.”

“Here’s a few fun factoids. The Moon’s distance is 10 times Earth’s Equator which is 100 times the International Space Station’s altitude. For that matter, if you wrapped a string around Earth’s Equator, it’d be just long enough to reach up to a GPS satellite and back. But all those are near‑Earth measurements where it makes sense to think in miles or kilometers. That’s too cumbersome for the bigger picture.”

“What else you got?”

“Within the Solar System I generally use one or the other of two convenient yardsticks. They measure the same distances, of course, but they have different applications. One is the nominal radius of Earth’s orbit, about 150 million kilometers.’

“That’s 93 million miles, Mr Feder.”

“I knew that one, Moire.”

“Anyway, we call that distance an Astronomical Unit. It’s handy for locating bodies relative to the Sun. Parker Solar Probe has gotten within a tenth of an AU of the Sun, for instance, and Neptune’s about 30 AU out. The Oort Cloud begins near 2000 AU and may extend a hundred times as far.”

“I ain’t even gonna ask what the Oort‐thing is, but I’m glad it’s a long way away.”

“We think it’s where long‑period comets come from.”

“Far away is good then. So what’s your other yardstick?”


“186 thousand miles per second, Mr Feder.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“It’s also 300 thousand kilometers per second, and one light‑second per second, and one light‑year per year. Within the Solar System my benchmarks are that Earth is 500 light-seconds from the Sun, and Pluto was 4½ light-hours away from us when New Horizons sent back those marvelous images. The Sun’s nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, is 4⅓ light‑years away, and when you compare hours to years that gives you an idea of how small we are on the interstellar scale.”

“Cathleen, when you mentioned New Horizons that reminded me of the JWST. We’ve gotten off the track from Mr Feder’s question. Why isn’t the Moon going to block those signals?”

“Because it’ll never be in the way.” <sketching on a paper napkin> “There’s a bunch of moving parts here so hold on. The Earth orbits the Sun and the Moon orbits the Earth once a month, right? The L2 point doesn’t orbit the Earth. It orbits the Sun, staying exactly behind Earth so yeah, once a month the Moon could maybe get between Earth and L2. But JWST won’t be at L2, it’ll be in a wide orbit around that point and mostly perpendicular to the orbits of the Earth and Moon.”

“How wide?”

“It’ll vary depending on what they need, but it’s big enough to keep the spacecraft’s solar panels in the sunlight.”

“Solar panels? I thought the IR sensors needed cold cold cold.”

“They do. JWST protects its cold side with a hot side featuring a pretty pink Kapton parasol.”

~~ Rich Olcott