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Is the $10b James Webb Space Telescope worth the price? • The Register

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Is the $10 billion price tag for the world’s most expensive telescope worth it?

The first set of images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope published this week revealed the birth and death of stars and merging galaxies in stunning full color. 

Direct comparisons of the same objects taken by the aging Hubble Space Telescope show just how much better the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, is at infrared wavelengths, with countless more dazzling stars and galaxies popping up into view.

The goal of the James Webb effort was to build an observatory that could receive light from the deepest voids of space so scientists could peer back to a time when the first galaxies began to form. But the ‘scope went through multiple redesigns since work began on it in 1990s, and it suffered numerous delays with valuable time spent fixing tears in its tennis court-sized sunshield and patching up hundreds of other points of potential failure. 

Work also had to be temporarily halted when space agencies ordered employees to stay at home during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. And don’t forget the JWST also repeatedly missed its initial launch date due to vibrational issues and a faulty data cable. All the while costs for the telescope continued piling up.

It finally blasted off from Earth at the end of December, arrived at its home a million miles away a month later, and detected its first photons in February. Now it’s beamed back photos of, among other things, galaxies as old as 13 billion years.

And so, after a quarter of a century, or thereabouts, of work and a hefty $10 billion bill, what does the entire effort have to show?

The Carina Nebula, snapped by the JWST

The Carina Nebula snapped by the JWST … Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Not only is the JWST providing humanity with the widest, deepest, and clearest view of the universe yet, it is operating at a level that has exceeded expectations. The telescope’s scientific performance is better than scientists hoped, according to a 60-page report from NASA, ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency.

“The optics are better aligned, the point spread function is sharper with higher encircled energy, and the optical performance is more time-stable than requirements,” scientists, who helped conduct a sixth-month review, gushed. “The fine guidance system points the observatory several times more accurately and precisely than required. The mirrors are cleaner than requirements, which translates into lower-than-expected levels of near-infrared stray light, meaning that the sky background will be darker for JWST than expected. The science instruments have generally higher total system throughput than pre-launch expectations.”

These improvements mean the JWST has a wide-range of capabilities, including the potential to peer at different types of objects, from nebulae, galaxies with quasars, the hubbub of stars toward the center of the Milky Way, our own Solar System, and near-Earth asteroids. Scientists have already directed the telescope to take infrared images of Jupiter and its moon, and have collected spectra from eight space rocks so far.

Enhanced optics capabilities have in turn boosted the overall performance of its instruments, too. The JWST has four main instruments packaged in the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM) that sits behind its primary gold-plated hexagonal mirror, including the Near-Infrared Camera, the Near-Infrared Spectrograph, the Mid-Infrared Instrument, and the Fine Guidance Sensor. 

“A key result of science instrument commissioning is that overall, the JWST science instruments have substantially better sensitivity than was predicted pre-launch. This result is due to higher science instrument throughput, sharper point spread functions, cleaner mirrors, and lower levels of near-infrared stray light background compared to pre-launch expectations,” the report said.

The instruments have to be cooled to keep noise levels low. Sunlight is reflected off its sunshield and heat is carried away through radiators, the Mid-Infrared Instrument also has its own cryocooler that recycles helium. Scientists say that although JWST was loaded up with enough propellant to last at least 10.5 years, it could be stretched to 20 years, giving them more observation time. 

The best time to gaze at the universe using the telescope, however, is sooner rather than later. The Solar System is filled with tiny, floating bits of rocky debris broken up from larger particles formed billions of years ago. These micrometeoroids can strike the telescope and damage its components. Six of these pesky flecks have hit the JWST so far, one particularly energetic event in May 2022 caused “significant uncorrectable change” in the overall structure of one of the primary mirror’s segments.

Fortunately, the imaging powers of the telescope weren’t impacted too much after mission control made two small adjustments to the mirror alignment. Scientists estimate that the JWST will be pelted by micrometeoroids about once a month, meaning its mirrors will degrade over time. The actual rate of deterioration, however, is unknown. 

“It is not yet clear whether the May 2022 hit was a rare event (ie, an unlucky early strike by a high kinetic energy micrometeoroid that statistically might occur only once in several years), or whether the telescope may be more susceptible to damage by micrometeoroids than pre-launch modeling predicted,” the boffins noted.

The JWST team said it was looking at ways to mitigate impact risks and will continue to model how the space prangs might affect its beryllium mirrors. Official science observations have begun, and astronomers will have a long while yet to keep studying the universe at depths they have never been able to before.

“Already we have stood on the shoulders of giants like the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, and seen farther,” John Mather, a senior project scientist for the JWST at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. “We have seen distant galaxies, as they were when the universe was less than a billion years old, and we’re just beginning the search. We have seen galaxies colliding and merging, revealing their chemical secrets.”

“We have seen one black hole close up, in the nucleus of a nearby galaxy, and measured the material escaping from it. We’ve seen the debris when a star exploded, liberating the chemical elements that will build the next generations of stars and planets. We have started a search for Earth 2.0, by watching a planet transiting in front of its star, and measuring the molecules in its atmosphere.

“We know the Webb images will rewrite our textbooks, and we hope for a new discovery, something so important that our view of the universe will be overturned once again.” ®

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Elon Musk ‘buying Manchester United’ football club • The Register

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Rocketry, energy, automotive, AI, tequila, tunnelling and (maybe) social media engineering entrepreneur Elon Musk has proclaimed his intention to buy Manchester United — the organization often cited as the world’s most supported football club.

Must revealed his “intentions” in a tweet, of course.

Whether Musk is serious or not is impossible to divine – he has a long history of Twitter japes. And of course he also has recent form announcing, then backing away from, a planned purchase of Twitter itself.

Musk’s only previous known involvement in football was building an unasked-for submarine to help rescue a children’s team from a cave in Thailand in 2018. And when the offer was declined he defamed one of the actual rescuers.

But that lack of a round ball background won’t stop some fans from hoping Musk’s tweet expressed a genuine desire to acquire the team, which has performed modestly for years as its owners kept spending on new players low. Rival teams, meanwhile, used their owners’ oil riches to hire the planet’s top talent and win trophy after trophy as Man U’s trophy case gathered nought but dust.

The club’s fortunes hit a new low in recent weeks with a 0–4 loss to Brentford – a team that brings a teensy bit more relevance into this tale. Its home ground anchors one end of the UK’s “M4 Corridor” – which houses a great many technology companies.

Brentford is, however, a footballing minnow.

Losing to Brentford – plus other recent losses and reported disharmony in the playing squad – has enraged fans to the point where some would surely welcome Elon Musk as owner, even if his only contribution is providing a one-way trip into space for some coaching staff and players.

Or perhaps Musk fancies sending Man U to Mars, where the club would be undisputed champions of an entire planet.

Another scenario could see Man turn out a team of humanoid Tesla robots – which are presumably more easily rebooted than the club’s misfiring players, and could compete in the Robot World Cup.

If all else fails, fans could just drown their sorrows in Tesla tequila



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Scottish start-ups are using satellite tech to help conserve elephants

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Doug McNeil of Eolas Insight said satellite technology can help humanity tackle the problems of conservation and the climate crisis.

Two Glaswegian start-ups are using satellite tech to help conservationists count African elephants from space.

Glasgow-based Eolas Insight will use artificial intelligence and high-resolution satellite imagery to detect elephants roaming across vast areas of a national park in southern Mozambique.

The company has received funding from the European Space Agency for the project.

It is working with conservationists from the Peace Parks Foundation and with fellow Glasgow tech start-up Omanos Analytics, which uses downstream satellite data analysis and on-the-ground intelligence to improve transparency and reduce risk around the social and environmental impacts of critical infrastructure projects.

Eolas Insight is a previous participant of Scottish accelerator programme CivTech, which focuses on innovation in the public sector. The elephant conservation project is based on previous work the start-up did with NatureScot as part of the CivTech programme in 2020, where it used satellite imagery techniques to monitor Scotland’s wild red deer.

Aerial satellite image showing Scottish deer identified by yellow squares.

Satellite image tracking Scottish deer. Image: Eolas Insight

Not only can satellite tech help monitor threatened species across the world, it can also provide a more sustainable and cheaper alternative to aircraft-based counts.

Satellites can pick up data on elephants such as how vulnerable they are in their environment. The tech can be used in remote areas as it does not depend on people on the ground, and can support efforts to stop poaching.

“Technology can play a key role in tackling what is arguably the biggest challenge facing humankind – conservation and the climate crisis. Detecting animals in satellite imagery will have its place in preservation projects of the future,” said Doug McNeil, managing director of Eolas Insight.

McNeil added that in the future his company would be working on creating a web-based platform, allowing users direct access to its methodology algorithms.

“There are so many hugely powerful new technologies available for environmental professionals and ecologists, however accessing these technologies can be a job in itself,” he said.

“At Eolas, we want to take the complexity out of technology and provide invaluable information to our customers. Our hope is that we can help them in some small way in their hugely important and timely work.”

In a 2020 proof-of-concept study, scientists in the UK used machine learning and satellite imagery to count African elephants from space. They said this approach could improve the monitoring of threatened elephant populations.

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Apple tells staff to come into the office for at least three days a week | Apple

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Apple has told its employees they must come in to the office for at least three days a week from next month, in an effort to restore “in-person collaboration”.

In a memo to all employees, Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said the policy would require all staff to return to the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as a third day that would vary team by team.

“We are excited to move forward with the pilot and believe that this revised framework will enhance our ability to work flexibly, while preserving the in-person collaboration that is so essential to our culture,” Cook said in the memo.

The official plan, emphasised as just a pilot in Cook’s letter, is already a step back from an earlier proposal for all employees to come in on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday every week.

The shift to a flexible day in addition to the two midweek days will allow some employees to continue to have four unbroken days at home each week.

Apple had long been an outlier among its peers on the question of remote working. While tech companies including Twitter and Facebook implemented policies at the start of the Covid pandemic that allowed employees to opt for permanent home working, Apple has maintained throughout that its long-term plan is for all employees to return to in-person work.

In June 2021, when Apple first proposed a return to the office for three days a week, Cook told employees that “for all that we’ve been able to achieve while many of us have been separated, the truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other. Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate.”

The company’s hardline stance on remote work has cost it already. In May, Ian Goodfellow, Apple’s director of machine learning, quit barely two years after being poached from Google to rejuvenate its virtual assistant Siri and the company’s other AI projects.

Goodfellow explicitly cited the return-to-work policy as the reason for his departure, telling staff: “I believe strongly that more flexibility would have been the best policy for my team,” according to the Verge’s Zoë Schiffer. Goodfellow rejoined Google, working for the company’s Deepmind subsidiary.

Apple’s stance is still not quite as strict as that taken by the car manufacturer Tesla. In a memo sent in early June, Elon Musk told employees to return to the office “for a minimum (and I mean minimum) of 40 hours per week” or quit the company.

Employees were entitled to work remotely in addition to that time in the office, he said, but if they thought remote work was sufficient, “they should pretend to work somewhere else”.



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