Splainer

Thursday, December 23, 2021


Dive In

 

Merry Christmas

That was the first ever text message sent on December 3, 1992—and Vodafone just sold an NFT of the SMS for $121,000. The proceeds will go to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). Also: it is the perfect quote for this holiday season.

 

Our last edition for 2021: The splainer team will be taking our annual holiday starting tomorrow. We will be back on January 3, 2022—but we have put together a huge holiday advisory on all the fun things to do when you aren’t reading the news:) Be sure to bookmark it for future reference. We wish you a wonderful and restful holiday with your friends and family. Please stay safe! Looking forward to another great year with you!


Stuff to check out: On the latest episode of the splainer podcast ‘Press Decode’, the splainer team looks at the history of sacrilege in Punjab—and whether TikTok kitchens are fair to its creators. Be sure to head over to the IVM website, Spotify or Apple Podcasts to listen to it.

 
Big Story

Say hello to a very big space telescope

The TLDR: At the end of a fairly dreary year on planet Earth, we decided to end the year with a Big Story on the vast and glorious universe beyond. NASA is getting ready to launch the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope on Christmas Day. It will allow humans to look back into the ancient past—all the way to the Big Bang. 

 

Researched by: Sara Varghese and Ankita Ghosh 

 

Here are the basic deets

  • The JWST took 25 years and $10 billion to build—and will be the most expensive telescope ever to be launched into space.
  • It is the product of a collaboration between three space agencies: NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency.
  • The telescope will be loaded onto an Ariane 5 rocket on the morning of December 25—and will take off from Kourou, French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America.
  • It will travel for 29 days and a million miles to an orbital spot beyond the moon—and park itself there, looking out into the universe and eternity. 
  • The Webb mission is expected to continue for five to 10 years—and it will produce its first scientific photo this summer. 

 

Point to note: The name of the telescope has been controversial as it is a tribute to a NASA administrator who oversaw the Apollo program—and supported policies that discriminated against gay and lesbian employees.

 

This is the very tricky (scary) bit… 

The JWST is way too large to fit on to any existing rocket. So scientists had to fold it down—and the telescope will have to unfurl itself, stage by stage, as it hurtles through space toward its resting spot. As The Atlantic puts it, “[the] new observatory is one of the most complicated pieces of engineering in history. It makes a Mars rover look like a toy car.”

 

The unfurling: will take place over 29 days. It will be the most complicated series of movements ever attempted in space—and look something like this.

 

As USA Today summarises it:

 

“The roughly $10 billion telescope has to be folded and stowed to exact specifications in Ariane 5's payload fairing, survive the vibrations of launch, then spend 29 days unfurling into a sunflower-like telescope with a massive 72-foot sunshield below.”

 

344 ‘single points of failure’: That’s the number of things that could possibly go wrong—and forever doom the telescope—and 80% of them are during that period of unfolding from its launch configuration. Hundreds of parts are responsible for the unfurling—and each one has to work perfectly in sequence and with great precision—as this video titled ‘29 Days on the Edge’ lays out. 

 

No ‘do overs’ this time: When the last big telescope—Hubble—was sent into space in 1990, it had a defective mirror, which made its lenses blurry. So astronauts were sent out to fix it. But unlike Hubble—which orbits only 340 miles above Earth—we don’t have the space technology to reach JWST, which will be a million miles away. So if something goes wrong with the telescope, there is no way to fix it—and a $10 billion marvel of engineering could become a piece of space junk in seconds. 

 

Why JWST is a big deal

 

 
Headlines that matter

Brigitte Macron is getting ready to sue

The First Lady of France is furious at persistent and popular rightwing rumours that she was born a man—under the name Jean-Michel Trogneux:

 

“The lies about the 68-year-old have been spread by accounts opposed to her husband, President Emmanuel Macron, including those on the political far-right, anti-vaccine groups and from the QAnon conspiracy movement.”


Why this matters: French elections are due to be held in spring—and Macron’s decision to sue may well add fuel to this conspiracy theory fire. (BBC News)

 

Mountains of trash

New research shows that microplastic has reached the top of France’s Pyrenees mountains—10,000 feet above sea level. Why this matters:

 

“We found plastic is now in the pollution superhighway that is the free troposphere. That’s the air mass above the clouds. Its low humidity and fast winds means long distance travel. We showed that these small plastic particles are moving transcontinental and transatlantic.”

 

Speaking of polluters: The annual brand audit from the NGO Break Free From Plastic puts Coke at the top of the world’s worst plastic polluters—followed by Pepsi, of course. Gizmodo has the others.

 

A perfume made of carbon emissions

A four-year-old start-up captures and converts carbon dioxide—which it then uses in all its products. Its latest creation is Air Eau de Parfum—the first fragrance made largely from air. How this works:

 

“What Air Company is able to do is transform carbon dioxide into a very pure form of ethanol. And with the addition of water and fragrance oil, you get perfume made primarily from air.”

 

The company’s previous carbon-based products include a vodka and a hand sanitiser. (New York Times)

 
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In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • The story of Christmas in paintings

 

Holiday Advisory

  • Good stuff to watch, read, cook, play and buy—we've got something for everyone!
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