Peering Through Time, One Million Miles From Earth
by Ron Miller
Space Artist and Author
The James Webb Space Telescope

After a flawless Christmas Day launch just weeks ago, the James Webb Space Telescope has successfully unfurled itself and has now arrived at Lagrange Point 2 (L2), a location nearly one million miles from the Earth. The Webb is now positioned in a semi-stable orbit where the Earth’s gravity and the Sun’s gravity counterbalance each other and any object placed at this spot will remain there. Why are we doing this, you may rightfully ask? The reasons for this mission are as fascinating and complicated as the spacecraft itself. With its mirrors and infrared cameras, the Webb is going to look back through time, so let’s first do a bit of that ourselves…

An engraving from 1624, depicting the use of a “Dutch telescope.”
In 1608, a Dutch eyeglass maker named Hans Lipperhey submitted a patent for his design of a metal tube with lenses that is considered to be the first written record of the invention of the telescope. With this device, faraway objects could be discerned more closely, making it very useful for military battles on land or at sea.
Astronomer Galileo demonstrating his telescope to Leonato Donato,
 the Doge of Venice, in 1609.
In 1609, Italian physicist and mathematician Galileo Galilei, was the first scientist to turn his telescope upward toward the night sky. He marveled at the celestial wonders that he saw but also experienced the frustrations of a phenomenon that plagues all Earth-bound astronomers to this day: atmospheric aberration.
Our ever-moving atmosphere is why Saturn appears blurred
and its details indistinct when viewed from Earth.
No matter how powerful your telescope might be, you’ll still have to contend with several miles of atmosphere that lay between it and the clear vacuum of space. It’s like looking through a window of distorted, unwashed glass. The constantly moving layers of our atmosphere warp and distort any light passing through it. It’s the reason that stars seem to twinkle. The effect is annoying enough to an astronomer trying to observe an object and when a photograph is being taken of the Moon, Mars or any other celestial body, the problem is made a hundred times worse. Because a photo requires a time exposure of anywhere from a few seconds to many minutes, the distortion created by the atmosphere builds up. The result is that what might have appeared sharp and clear to the eye is a blur on the photographic plate. It’s a problem that space artist and amateur astronomer, Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986), was well aware of when using his own telescope for celestial inspiration.
Chesley Bonestell with his telescope in the early 1960s.
Putting an observatory on the Moon – where there is no interfering atmosphere – was an alternative idea that occurred to writers, scientists and stargazers long before the Space Age began.
Observers on the Moon watching an eclipse of the Sun by the Earth,
from The Conquest of the Moon (1889).
In Andre Laurie’s 1889 science fiction novel, The Conquest of the Moon, a terrestrial observatory finds itself transported to the lunar surface. Astronomers become ecstatic at the discoveries they make, now that they are beyond the interfering atmosphere of our planet. Laurie wrote, “The atmosphere of Earth is like a veil between our telescopes and the stars; but the lunar black as ink.”
Paramount Pictures
Destination Moon’s astronauts and their telescope/camera.

An astronomical telescope was also part of the scientific equipment unloaded onto the surface of the Moon by the astronauts in the classic science fiction film Destination Moon, made in 1950. Bonestell played an important role designing the rocket that went to the Moon, key special effect matte paintings and the realistic lunar backdrops.

Observatory on the Moon (1961) by Chesley Bonestell

Fascinated with the notion of a telescope on the Moon, Chesley created this illustration in 1961 for his book Rocket to the Moon. It depicts an observatory as being part of a permanent lunar base. The telescope itself can be seen perched atop a mountain in the upper right part of the picture.

One of the most important books in the history of the development of spaceflight, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen, written in 1923, was the first to mention the possibility of orbiting space telescopes.

In this seminal book, Hermann Oberth briefly mentioned the advantages of a telescope orbiting above the interfering atmosphere of the Earth. But this slim – 92-page – book was written in highly technical language so that few other than experts heard of his idea. Still, he had planted a seed...

An illustration from the original edition of The Problem of Space Travel is also the first depiction of a space telescope: the cylindrical object at the upper right. It’s connected to the space station and solar power generator by cables.
The first detailed description of an orbital telescope written for a popular audience was in the classic 1929 book, The Problem of Space Travel, by Herman Potočnik, writing as Hermann Noordung. Inspired by Oberth’s theories, he described in detail the construction and operation of a space station.
Noordung’s astronomical observatory was equipped with view ports, an airlock and tethers that provided power and fresh air.
Orbiting near it would be an observatory. Shaped like a giant boiler studded with rows of circular windows, it would be connected to the station by flexible tubes that conducted air and power to the observatory from the solar-powered station. Noordung’s observatory would be equipped with everything it needed for remote observation by astronomers in the space station as well as a laboratory for performing experiments in zero gravity.
Noordung wrote that “due to the absence of an atmosphere no optical barrier exists in empty space to prevent using telescopes of unlimited sizes...[and] from the standpoint of construction, conditions are very favorable...due to the existing weightlessness.” He believed that it might be possible to build reflecting telescopes a kilometer long by using a series of mirrors positioned and controlled remotely. “Without a doubt,” he wrote, “it can be stated that almost no limits would exist at all for the performance of these instruments, and consequently for the possibility of deep space observations.”
In 1952, rocket engineer Wernher von Braun and his collaborators on the Collier’s magazine space flight symposium revived Noordung's idea. Although there is only a passing mention of an orbiting space telescope in the text of the magazine, space artist Chesley Bonestell was careful to include one in one of his most recognizable paintings.
Space Station, Ferry Rocket and Space Telescope 1,075 Miles above Central America (1952)

An orbital space telescope, seen here being serviced by a crew of astronauts was the first time a space telescope had been depicted since 1929. A pan- oramic double-page spread shows the wheel-shaped space station 1075 miles above the Pacific Ocean, with Central America and the Yucatan peninsula dominating the earthscape below. Nearby, a winged space shuttle has arrived with a cargo of supplies for the station. In the foreground, a capsule-shaped space taxi is drawing near a space telescope, which several astronauts are busy servicing. Images taken by the telescope are relayed to the nearby space station where a special section is devoted to the observatory. From there, the telescope could be aimed and focused remotely. Astronomers on board the station use a television communications system as a kind of viewfinder for aiming and adjusting the instrument. When they get the image they want, a photo is taken automatically, processed in a darkroom and then projected onto large screens for study.

A detail of the von Braun / Bonestell Space Telescope. The telescope’s mirror is in the dome-shaped end, which is also equipped with the antennae used to send images to the space station.
In 1946, astronomer Lyman Spitzer wrote a report for the Rand Corporation called “Astronomical Advantages of an Extra-Terrestrial Observatory” in which he outlined the need for a large space-based telescope. The instrument he proposed would have been huge, with a mirror between 15 and 45 feet in diameter. It was a grandiose idea: the Palomar telescope, then still under construction, was the world’s largest at 15 feet. Twenty years later, Spitzer pitched his idea to NASA, which was then looking for proposals for a Large Space Telescope (LST). Spitzer and his associates launched a coast-to-coast campaign, pitching their idea to scientists, NASA and members of Congress.
The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit above Earth
It was a long haul, but it eventually paid off when funding was finally approved and the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990. In its 32-year career, the Hubble has transformed observational astronomy with its stunning images.  But after three decades, it became time for something new… something far more powerful.
A space observatory on the vast scale originally envisioned by von Braun, Bonestell and Spitzer was launched on Christmas Day, 2021. As large as a three-story building and carrying an array of mirrors spanning more than 21 feet across, the James Webb Space Telescope is the largest, most powerful space telescope ever built.
Northrup Grumman Space Systems
The James Webb Space Telescope, positioned a million miles from Earth.
A virtual time machine, it will allow scientists to look back over 13.5 billion years of cosmic history to see the first stars and galaxies being formed out of the dark void of the primordial universe. It will also be able to observe objects in our solar system beyond Mars, use its infrared cameras to observe new stars and planets forming in clouds of dust and gas, and even examine the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars. The possibilities of what the Webb will find are as limitless as the universe itself, particularly since the Ariane rocket that launched the Webb did such an efficient job that the lifespan of the telescope may extend to 20 years instead of the projected 10 year science lifetime.
The first images from the Webb are in!
On February 3, the Webb detected the first photons of starlight, which will help begin the alignment process of the telescope.  On February 11, NASA released these pictures:
These 18 blurry dots are the same star (HD 84406 near the Big Dipper) reflected from 18 mirrors onboard the Webb. At the end of the alignment process, which will take approximately one month to complete, there will be one bright image of a single star.
The Webb is not shy… and also sent back a selfie!
The Webb used its NIRCam or Near Infrared Camera to send back an image of its 18 primary mirrors currently undergoing alignment.
When the full alignment and focusing process is completed later this summer, the Webb’s 2 billion pixel images are expected to be unlike any ever seen before. A NASA spokesperson reports: “The entire Webb team is ecstatic at how well the first steps of taking images and aligning the telescope are proceeding."
We wish everyone at Northrop Grumman Space Systems, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, Arianespace and NASA much continued success with this exciting mission!
We send our condolences to the family of Douglas Trumbull, who passed away on February 7. A true Hollywood legend, Doug rose to fame using his talents to provide revolutionary special photographic effects for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as well as directing his own films, which included Silent Running and Brainstorm. Doug was also incredibly helpful in the making of Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future and the story of his priceless participation will be told in the next edition of Bonestell Brushstrokes.
Director Doug Trumble and Doug Stewart, producer/writer/director, during the making of Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future in 2015. The two Dougs are photographed at Trumbull Studios in Southfield, Massachusetts. You can see Doug Trumbull in our film’s trailer by clicking on the image above.

Copyright © 2022 Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future, All rights reserved.

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