Editor's Desk: The long game

01 May 2022
Gwen Weerts

In the 2013 film Now You See Me, fictitious magician Lionel Shrike executes a spectacular magic trick. At a magic show in Central Park in New York City, he asks an audience member to sign a playing card. He then proceeds to saw a large tree in half, revealing the signed card inside. The movie goes on to reveal how Shrike executed the trick: 20 years before, he had asked the same man to sign a playing card, which he nestled into the hollow of a young tree that grew up around it.

This clever trick is a plot point in a movie, and it doesn’t hold up to close inspection (How did he get the same person to sign the same playing card twice? And you can’t cut down trees in Central Park…), but it is a good illustration of someone with the patience to play the long game.

On 25 December 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launched aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana. It, too, was the culmination of a very long game begun 25 years earlier. The Webb was conceived in the mid-1990s—following tremendous public interest in the Hubble Space Telescope—as a cold infrared space telescope that could help us learn about the birth of the first celestial objects that formed in the newly born universe.

The mission was famously plagued by delays and budget overruns, but the teams working on JWST were devoted. Many scientists reportedly delayed retirement by years—and then more years—in order to see the project through to completion. This long attention span is common among astronomical instrumentation engineers, who are used to working on projects that span a decade or more.

The instruments described in this issue of Photonics Focus reflect the varied timelines of space missions, from short-term cubesats—which can be designed, built, and launched within just a couple of years—to the GRACE satellite series, which has allowed astronomers to observe surface mass changes to Earth’s polar ice and water over a period of decades. The longest-term mission described in these pages may be STROBE-X, which is currently at the same stage of mission concept as JWST was in 1996. As a smaller-scale probe mission, though, STROBE-X could feasibly be completed in under a decade.

Astronomical instruments like telescopes and satellites are unique in that funders, engineers, governing bodies, and the public maintain interest and support for these projects over long periods of time. In other areas of science, such as chemistry and biology, researchers and engineers are under pressure to produce results in much shorter timeframes. But, as the successful design, testing, and launch of JWST demonstrates, there’s much to be gained from playing the long game. The discoveries that JWST will enable may reveal nothing less than the beginning of everything. 

Gwen Weerts, Photonics Focus Editor-in-chief

Gwen Weerts

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