Why doesn't the James Webb Space Telescope have any cameras onboard?

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope separates from its Ariane 5 rocket with the bright blue Earth in the background in this view captured after its launch on Dec. 25, 2021.
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope separates from its Ariane 5 rocket with the bright blue Earth in the background in this view captured after its launch on Dec. 25, 2021. (Image credit: NASA TV)

The public is now used to seeing space up close, thanks to cameras watching everything from satellites deploying to a spacesuit-clad "dummy" cruising in a Tesla — so why doesn't NASA's giant new observatory have any cameras on board?

It has to do with light and heat, Julie Van Campen, deputy commissioning manager for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Center in Maryland, said during a live broadcast Tuesday (Jan. 4) showing the last stages of the tricky sunshield deployment.

Webb launched on Dec. 25 and is now on a month-long journey to its observing destination, nearly 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. But engineers in charge of the telescope's nerve-wracking development have no photographs to work from.

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Van Campen noted that Webb's multi-decade development began when portable cameras were not widely available. But even if a camera was included on board, it might mess up the sensitive optics on Webb, which are sensitive in infrared to gaze back at the young universe.

So the first challenge for an onboard camera would be overcoming that the telescope literally operates in the black: "Looking at the telescope, it would be dark," Van Campen explained of a theoretical camera's view.

An artist's illustration of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope deployed in space. Artist views and telemetry-driven graphics are the only images we'll see of Webb after its launch. (Image credit: ESA)

"We would need some kind of light system on a camera system," Van Campen continued. "We would have problems if we wanted to do flash photography, obviously. Our mirrors are very sensitive. Our optics inside are very sensitive, and most importantly, [so are] our detectors all the way deep inside of our instruments."

Another problem with deploying cameras would be interference with keeping Webb cool. Webb must operate at a very low temperature so as not to disturb its infrared observations, which means attaching a camera would be very complicated.

"Plastics fall apart" in the cold, Van Campen said, "and they shrink and crack glues ... to make something that would work in the cryogenic temperatures on the cold side of the sunshield will take a lot of engineering and design." 

And running heat cables out to keep the cameras warm could cause Webb to accidentally study the heat signature of the cables, rather than the signature of the universe.

So Van Campen said the engineers are relying on traditional data transmitted from the telescope. That data, known as telemetry, does the job — even if it's perhaps not quite as satisfying.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace