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The world’s greatest—and costliest—telescope reaches a new tech frontier

January 10, 2022, 5:57 PM UTC

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful space observatory ever created, finally unfolded into action this past week to the relief of astronomers across the world.

After completing nearly 300 pinpoint maneuvers before unfurling its 21-foot-wide, honeycomb-esque primary mirror, the JWST reached full deployment while hovering hundreds of thousands of miles above earth. Over the next 10-plus years, the JWST will study galaxies far beyond our imagination. 

The unmanned, $10 billion hardware, outfitted with some of the world’s most cutting-edge technology, will join the lexicon of major achievements in astronomy: Hubble, Apollo, Space Shuttle, and Mars rover.

This remarkable accomplishment offers an opportunity to reflect on the amazing potential of public-private tech partnerships—several contractors made the technical breakthroughs necessary for launch using federal funds—while also serving as a stark reminder of the cost of innovation.

For 60-plus years, countless Americans have benefited from the country’s massive investment in NASA. Engineers working on space exploration exercises have produced or helped shepherd hundreds of inventions ubiquitous in today’s world: GPS software, heart defibrillators, memory foam, solar panels, firefighting equipment, and digital image sensors used in nearly all cell phone cameras.

The JWST also pioneers new frontiers in nanotechnology, infrared light detection, and heating and cooling, among others. While the everyday uses for many of these developments likely remain years off, that day will come. (If you want to nerd out on the nitty-gritty of JWST’s hardware, Space.com’s Tereza Pultarova has a detailed-but-digestible dispatch.)

For this, many people deserve plaudits: federal policymakers who see the value in space exploration; NASA leaders and engineers, who labored for decades on the successor to the sometimes underwhelming Hubble Space Telescope; lead contractors Northrop Grumman and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy’s Space Telescope Science Institute; and several smaller subcontractors.

“Webb’s successful deployment exemplifies the best of what NASA has to offer: the willingness to attempt bold and challenging things in the name of discoveries still unknown,” NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, said in a statement.

This moment, however, didn’t come cheap.

Initially, NASA officials pegged the telescope’s price tag in the early 2000s at $1 billion to $3.5 billion. The costs ballooned over the years amid technological hurdles, poor budgeting, and underwhelming management. A 2010 review ordered a little too late by Congress chastised project leaders for failing to create “a well-defined plan for completion” and making “a series of decisions that have led to substantial underfunding.”

Those faux paus likely cost taxpayers, while also saddling Congress with the unenviable choice of throwing billions more at the project or scrapping it altogether. 

Thankfully, lawmakers, engineers, and project leaders eventually came through. And hopefully, there will be much to learn from this experience about proper government oversight, the potential for developing novel technology, and the great unknown surrounding our world.

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Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Game on for this merger. Take-Two Interactive, one of the largest video game developers, announced Monday that it will buy mobile gaming giant Zynga in a cash-and-stock deal valued at about $12.7 billion. The acquisition by Take-Two, best known as the publisher of the Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead, and NBA 2K series for gaming consoles and PCs, will retain the Zynga brand for its mobile offerings. Zynga, powered by its Farmville and Words With Friends games, among others, is expected to post revenues of about $2.8 billion in 2021. Zynga’s stock rocketed up 44% as of early afternoon Monday trading, while Take-Two’s shares fell about 15%.

Another Facebook staffer speaks out. A former Facebook executive who helmed the company’s policy work on elections criticized her one-time employer’s commitment to creating a healthier political environment, adding to the list of former staff members who have lost faith in the platform’s leadership, The Wall Street Journal reported. Katie Harbath, who served as Facebook’s public-policy director for global elections until March 2021, said she anticipates an increase in political violence unless governments and tech companies take action to stem disinformation and organizing groups prone to abuse of the platform. Harbath agreed with Facebook officials that the company doesn’t deserve sole blame for the Jan. 6 Capitol violence, but she said “there should be more soul-searching” among executives reluctant to accept some responsibility.

The metaverse race continues. Chinese tech colossus Tencent could soon close a deal to acquire gaming smartphone developer Black Shark, a pick-up that would further validate the company’s growing interest in leading development of the metaverse, Bloomberg reported Monday. Black Shark, a small producer of smartphones in China, is expected to overhaul its operations to focus on making virtual reality headsets compatible with future iterations of the metaverse. Tencent and Facebook parent Meta rank among the largest global outfits competing to pioneer the metaverse, though Tencent’s president has warned that it could take years to conceptualize.

A bumpy road to market. Former president Donald Trump’s planned social media platform, Truth Social, likely remains months away from going public due to financial, staffing, and regulatory hurdles, The Washington Post reported Monday. A preorder page in Apple’s App store lists an “expected” launch date of Feb. 21 for Truth Social, but anonymous sources told the Post that the platform won’t be fully operational until the venture merges with a special purpose acquisition company, giving Truth Social access to needed money for hiring employees. Trump envisions Truth Social as a Republican-friendly competitor to Twitter and Facebook, both of which banned the former president following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The color of money. As a devoted iPhone user, I get a visceral negative reaction when a text shows up on iMessage in a green bubble. It’s completely irrational. I can’t explain it. And it turns out, I’m not alone. Apple executives know their customers love those blue text bubbles, only available to iPhone users, and intentionally deny Android users the opportunity to join the club, The Wall Street Journal reported. Google isn’t happy about this, with a senior vice-president accusing Apple of profiting off “peer pressure and bullying.” However, Apple devotees note that Google’s track record on messaging technology is as ugly as those green bubbles.

From the article:

From the beginning, Apple got creative in its protection of iMessage’s exclusivity. It didn’t ban the exchange of traditional text messages with Android users but instead branded those messages with a different color; when an Android user is part of a group chat, the iPhone users see green bubbles rather than blue. 

It also withheld certain features. There is no dot-dot-dot icon to demonstrate that a non-iPhone user is typing, for example, and an iMessage heart or thumbs-up annotation has long conveyed to Android users as text instead of images.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Tesla fans start to doubt Elon Musk after latest price hike for Full Self-Driving tech, by Christiaan Hetzner

Customers claim their money at one Hong Kong-based crypto exchange has been stuck since late November, by Sarah Zheng and Bloomberg

What CES 2022 taught us about the future of trade shows, by Chris Morris

Tech for fighting COVID is a big focus at CES this year. But buyer beware, by Chris Morris

5 of the oddest and, in some cases, coolest tech at CES 2022, by Chris Morris

Bitcoin and Ether are crashing amid crypto uncertainty around the world, by Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez

BEFORE YOU GO

A Web3 fight on Web2. Signal CEO Moxie Marlinspike—side note: best name in tech—caused a bit of a stir Saturday when he threw cold water on the promise of Web3, which blockchain boosters see as the next, decentralized iteration of the Internet. In a lengthy blog post, Marlinspike argued that Web3 is inefficient and still puts centralized power in the hands of platform operators, such as cryptocurrencies like Ethereum and non-fungible token marketplaces such as OpenSea. Proponents, however, responded that Web3 will become more decentralized as it matures. Expect this debate to rage for a while.

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