1730: Starshade

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The New Worlds Mission is already trying to get funding for this, but NASA sponsored their proposal, so it will be hard to catch the telescope people by surprise with it.
Title text: The New Worlds Mission is already trying to get funding for this, but NASA sponsored their proposal, so it will be hard to catch the telescope people by surprise with it.


Megan (drawn to look similar to Danish) and Ponytail are talking about space telescopes in general. Megan says that these telescopes could see exoplanets better by using occulting disks, in the form of free floating opaque discs, that could block out light from the exoplanets' stars, thus enabling the telescopes to see the weak light from the planets when the glare of the stars has been diminished.

She continues by explaining that the scientists behind the new James Webb Space Telescope, at the time of the comic scheduled to launch in 2018, thought about including such a disk (a starshade), but that it was cut for budget reasons. Ponytail asks if it has to be their own disk, and then decides to kickstart a fundraiser to build a starshade. Ponytail is referring to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, although there is no actual project for a starshade for Webb (or for the New Worlds Mission; see title text explanation) on Kickstarter. Megan asks her to at least warn the scientists if she makes the starshade, but Ponytail just replies "whatever".

The final panel shows the NASA control center in 2018 when the Webb telescope is being calibrated. It turns out that Ponytail succeeded and did indeed not warn the scientists. Cueball is surprised by the disc -- presumably because an unfamiliar object suddenly eclipses the star and possibly even seems to "eat" the star -- but Hairbun immediately notices exoplanets, implying that Ponytail's plan worked.

Note that the telescope has partners from 20 countries and is being operated not only by NASA but also by European Space Agency (ESA), Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI).

The best known space telescope is the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched back in 1990. The Webb telescope is seen as a successor instrument to Hubble and, because its instruments are designed to work primarily in the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, also as a successor to the Spitzer Space Telescope launched in 2003. In addition to having more sensitive sensors and being larger, Webb will also be located near the L2 Earth–Sun Lagrangian point, and thus not in orbit around Earth. This means that it can keep focusing on a specific point for longer times, while Hubble can see a given point for only about half an hour before moving behind Earth again. When operating in the infrared range as the Webb telescope does (from middle infrared to red and orange visible light), it is important to be outside the atmosphere or at least on very high mountains. Another important feature is to keep the temperature constant and very cool. Since the Webb telescope is always in the light of the sun, this is achieved using protection from a large sunshield.

The title text mentions the New Worlds Mission. This mission is to find exoplanets (hence the name New Worlds) by applying a starshade to block the light of distant stars, so that the planets around the stars are more visible. All discovered exoplanets so far have been found indirectly and not by direct visual observation. The starshade proposed by the New Worlds Mission is a spacecraft designed to work in tandem with a space telescope (not necessarily just the Webb telescope). It is a large occulter that blocks a star's light. One problem with this concept is that light coming from the target star would diffract around the disc and constructively interfere along the central axis. Thus the starlight would still be easily visible, making planet detection impossible. In order to avoid this problem, the proposed starshade is a sunflower-shaped coronagraph disc. The "petals" of the "sunflower" shape are designed to eliminate this diffraction, making exoplanet observation possible. The starshade would fly 72,000 km (45,000 mi) in front of a space telescope (between the telescope and a target star) in order to work. A video demonstrating the starshade is available on the Wikipedia page for the New Worlds Mission. The title text explains that NASA actually sponsored this mission's proposal to build a starshade for the Webb telescope, and concludes that the surprise shown in the comic is not likely to occur in real life. NASA stopped this sponsorship in 2008, and the New Worlds Mission has been looking for additional financing since 2010. Telescope people refers to the engineers and scientists who build, operate, and use space telescopes.

It seems clear that Randall would like to point attention to the New Worlds Mission, possibly hoping for increased funding for the project so a starshade could become a reality for the Webb telescope. That Randall is interested in exoplanets has been demonstrated many times in xkcd.

Note that two of the Webb telescope's instruments, the NIRCam and the MIRI, feature starlight-blocking coronagraphs for observation of faint targets such as exoplanets, so the telescope has ways to improve the visibility of these planets. However, Randall (and the New Worlds Mission) believe that a starshade would be better suited for this task.

The idea of an occulting telescope was used in 975: Occulting Telescope, where it turns out the purpose is to just block all star light, not to see exoplanets.


[Megan and Ponytail are walking.]
Megan: Space telescopes could see exoplanets better if they used free-floating opaque discs to block the stars' glare.
[They stop walking in this zoom in on their heads. Ponytail has turned towards Megan.]
Megan: They thought about including one with the Webb telescope, but cut it to save money.
Ponytail: Well... does it have to be their disc?
[In this frame-less panel Megan is left standing as Ponytail turns and walks away.]
Megan: What do you mean?
Ponytail: Like, if I Kickstart a starshade for them?
Megan: Um. Would you at least warn them?
Ponytail: Eh. Whatever.
[Cueball and Hairbun, both wearing headsets, are sitting on one legged stools on either side of a slim desk with two computers screens on top of it. Each are looking at their own screens while typing on a keyboard in front of them. Hairbun is pointing at her screen. A small frame is overlaid on the top of the panels frame with a caption:]
NASA, 2018:
Cueball: Initiating Webb calibrat-
Cueball: Aaaaa! What the hell is that!?
Hairbun: Hey, look, exoplanets!

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I would like to note that in the last frame the microphone booms on the headsets are on the right side, rather than on the left, which would have been more common. Stackexchange discussion (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Wauw that is not important here ;-) --Kynde (talk) 12:24, 7 September 2016 (UTC)

Does "kickstart" refer to Kickstarter? --JakubNarebski (talk) 14:15, 7 September 2016 (UTC)

Pretty clearly, but it might be good to make that explicit, and point out that either there is no such Kickstarter project yet, or (less likely) link to the project.
FlashSheridan (talk) 14:59, 7 September 2016 (UTC)
Have mentioned this in the explanation. Not sure it is a reference to that. She does not call is kickstarter... --Kynde (talk) 19:53, 7 September 2016 (UTC)

May be related to 975: Occulting Telescope (https://xkcd.com/975/). 17:08, 7 September 2016 (UTC)

Definitely worth referring too. Thanks and done. --Kynde (talk) 19:53, 7 September 2016 (UTC)

The reaction in the last panel seems rather extreme. I wonder if perhaps this was a custom starshade resembling the final image at the bottom of this page: https://what-if.xkcd.com/136/

The James Webb Telescope already has measures to shade the stars! http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/nircam.html: "NIRCam is equipped with coronagraphs, instruments that allow astronomers to take pictures of very faint objects around a central bright object, like stellar systems. NIRCam's coronagraphs work by blocking a brighter object's light, making it possible to view the dimmer object nearby - just like shielding the sun from your eyes with an upraised hand can allow you to focus on the view in front of you. With the coronagraphs, astronomers hope to determine the characteristics of planets orbiting nearby stars." - Sebastian -- 18:26, 7 September 2016 (UTC)

From a NASA report: "JWST/Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) coronagraphy should be capable of detecting companions at contrasts of 10−6 at separations beyond 1.5 arcsec, capturing objects like our own Jupiter in 4.5 μm thermal emission if they are orbiting the nearest M stars. The uncertain luminosity evolution of young giant planets clouds the picture somewhat (Marley et al. 2007), but it appears that the some of the more massive planets orbiting nearby (d < 20 pc), young (age < 1 Gyr), low-mass (M < 1.0 Msun) stars could be in view by 2024." - it talks about detecting, not imaging, objects like Jupter. - Sebastian -- 18:57, 7 September 2016 (UTC)
Included in the explanation. --Kynde (talk) 19:53, 7 September 2016 (UTC)

Perhaps it should be mentioned in the article that the James Webb is a near infrared and middle infrared telescope (+ orange visible light). For good infrared images one needs high mountains or space. Nasa has an article why infrared is good for examining (the spectra of) exoplanets: http://asd.gsfc.nasa.gov/blueshift/index.php/2013/10/24/maggies-blog-why-infrared-exoplanet-edition/ - Sebastian -- 18:33, 7 September 2016 (UTC)

Included in the explanation. --Kynde (talk) 19:53, 7 September 2016 (UTC)

I made it so it's not incomplete anymore. Also, the comic isn't random, because it's 2016 and it's scheduled to launch in less than two years (because 2016 is almost over). I also added a citation to the Wikipedia article for the James Webb Telescope with links to the "budget issues" revealed in the comic. I hope this clears up a few things. :) -- JayRulesXKCD (talk) 7:41, 9 September 2016 (EDT)

This comic makes sense in context of 2016 launch date. As of 2021, JWST still has not launched. See 2014: JWST Delays and 2550: Webb for further Cueball commentary on the subject. --Tlynnec (talk) 00:29, 24 December 2021 (UTC)

"Ponytail may be referring to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, but it does not seem like there is any project (yet) for a Starshade for Webb (or for New Worlds Mission, see title text explanation)." I am absolutely flabbergasted that there is even a hint of a doubt expressed here, in the article, or in this discussion. This is 100%, without a doubt, unequivocably, unquestionably a reference to Kickstarter. "Kickstarter" and "Kickstart" are words that simply do not exist in the English language outside of the world of Kickstarter. The closest is where they clearly got their name, the kick starting of a motorcycle (which to the best of my knowledge is two words, or at least hyphenated). With the rising popularity of Kickstarter, people have coined the verb "Kickstart", meaning to start a Kickstarter campaign to fund the verb's object, which is how Ponytail is using it here. As for there not being such a Kickstarter project, OF COURSE THERE ISN'T! This is a comic! It's a joke! And Ponytail isn't a real person who can start one! Non-existant concepts have appeared throughout the history of XKCD! For example, the comic where Black Hat breaks into an Internet Troll's house to tell him off for being disgusting to nerd girls on the internet, he's followed by a girl with a weapon he names an EMP cannon. I seriously doubt such a portable weapon exists, yet there it is in the comic. Or the Rule 34 comic, where they started a WetRiffs website. Nobody started that, it didn't exist until Randall did afterwards for giggles because of his comic.

Doubt on this point is inappropriate, dilutes this site's credibility, and it should be removed. - NiceGuy1 06:01, 11 September 2016 (UTC) I finally signed up! This comment is mine. (Wow, I'm surprised that idiotic line is still in the explanation, that nobody ever fixed it. I'm all about caution in making statements, but this is ridiculous) NiceGuy1 (talk) 10:39, 9 June 2017 (UTC)

I think it’s Danish not Megan. Just LOOK AT THAT HAIR!! (talk) 02:54, 28 August 2023 (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Late, but Danish is distinguished by her actions, not by her hair. This character does not act like Danish in any way, even suggested to warn people about something confusing. Poxy6 (talk) 18:47, 12 January 2024 (UTC)

In retrospect, the 2018 date was way too optimistic. It's even a little embarrassing. 01:28, 1 April 2024 (UTC)