1. Put out the data, boost the dose of transparency
The Government must make COVID-19 data including that for vaccine regulatory approvals and policy available
On December 25, the Prime Minister of India announced two key decisions. First, all children in the 15-17 age bracket will be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines from January 3, 2022. Second, all health-care workers, frontline workers and the people aged 60 years and above (with co-morbidities and on the advice of a medical doctor) can get a third shot, or ‘precaution dose’. The policy decision was followed by a note that was released on December 27, outlining operational details. The eligibility for the precaution dose will be on the completion of nine months or 39 weeks after the second dose. The note did not mention which vaccine would be administered as the precaution dose. Teenage children whose birth year is 2007 or before will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. Children will receive Covaxin, the reason being (according to the note) it is the only emergency use listed (EUL) World Health Organization vaccine available for use in this age group in India.
Opinion or evidence
The decision is said to be based on ‘advice of the scientific community’. However, it was not clear whether that advice was based on opinion or ‘the scientific evidence’. If media reports are to be believed, in the fourth week of December, the COVID-19 vaccine sub-group of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) in India, which was supposed to review the data on the scientific evidence on the booster shot and vaccination of children, had postponed the meeting for a later date. A few members of NTAGI have written or spoken publicly about not having enough scientific evidence to administer booster doses and vaccinate children in India. The term ‘precaution dose’ is being considered as tacit acknowledgement of insufficient evidence. What else explains not calling it a ‘booster dose’?
These two decisions make nearly 7.5 crore children eligible for the primary vaccination and three crore health-care and frontline workers and 10 crore of the elderly suitable for the precaution shot. The individuals will become eligible for the precaution dose on the rolling basis, and on day one of the roll-out (January 10, 2022) approximately one crore health-care and frontline workers and 14 lakh of the 60-plus population will be eligible. Thereafter, every subsequent day, approximately 3,00,000 to 4,00,000 individuals will be added for the precaution dose.
Successive national and State-level sero-surveys have reported that a majority of children in India had got natural infection, while staying at home and thus developed antibodies. The studies have shown that children rarely develop moderate to severe COVID-19 disease. The emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has not altered the risk in children. It is in this backdrop that the benefits of vaccinating children are limited, and they are considered lower in the order of priority for COVID-19 vaccination.
Most public health and vaccine experts favour a ‘targeted vaccination approach’ by prioritising high-risk children for COVID-19 vaccination. However, such an approach is likely to face an operational challenge in the identification of the eligible children. The alternative is ‘vaccinating all children in a small age-subgroup’ with the advantage of administrative simplicity. The Government has opted for the second approach.
As per a note released on December 27, persons aged 60 years and above with comorbidities, on doctor’s advice, will be provided with the precaution dose. This makes vaccination a two-step process: first seeking consultation and then getting vaccinated. This additional step could prove an access barrier and people may defer the vaccination decision. For COVID-19, all the elderly are at higher risk. Therefore, it does not make practical sense in picking specific health conditions for precaution dose.
There is another key concern. A majority of the elderly have one or other comorbidities. Of the 14 crore elderly population in India, an estimated 7 to 10 crore people could have co-morbidities. If they have to seek advice from a physician, in order to get vaccinated, this essentially means that there would be up to 10 crore of medical consultations, which would come at a cost — indirect (travel time and opportunity cost for individuals and an avoidable burden on the health-care system) and direct cost (if attended in the private sector), all of which is avoidable.
Making it work
Now that a policy decision has been made, there need to be a few considerations taken into account in order to make its implementation effective. First, the conditionality of comorbidities and the need for advice/prescription by a doctor for ‘the precaution shot’ in the elderly should be done away with. If the conditionality of comorbidity needs to be retained due to any scientific evidence — which the Government has used in decision making — then it should be a self-declaration only, without the need for a doctor’s advice.
Second, there is scientific evidence and consensus on administering the third dose for immunocompromised adults. The Indian government should urgently consider administering a third dose for all immunocompromised adults, irrespective of age.
Third, studies have found that a heterologous prime-boost approach — third shot on a different vaccine platform — is a better approach. Among all the options, while mRNA-based vaccines have the best boosting effect, the drawback is that they are not available in India. However, Covovax (as Novovax’s recombinant protein nanoparticle-based vaccine is called in India) has received EUL from the World Health Organization and is being produced in India. Another protein-based vaccine, Corbevax, is being developed by Biological E Ltd. in India. The manufacturer of Corbevax has submitted trial data on a rolling basis to the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) in India. The Indian government has already made an ‘advance purchase agreement’ with the manufacturer for Corbevax. On December 28, Covovax and Corbevax were approved in India for restricted use in an emergency situation (https://bit.ly/3Hhb055). A recent study in The Lancet has reported that the use of a protein-based vaccine as third dose, would have a better boosting effect than the third shot of the same vaccine on viral-vectored or inactivated vaccine platforms. With approval for emergency use of two additional vaccines, India should consider administering an approved protein-based vaccine as the precaution dose.
Fourth, various pending policy questions on COVID-19 vaccine need to be identified urgently. The technical expert should be given complete access to COVID-19 data for analysis and to find answers to those scientific and policy questions. Additional studies with primary data collection should be urgently commissioned for those policy issues which can not be answered by existing data. This is the only way to ensure that future COVID-19 vaccination decisions are based upon scientific evidence and not just the ‘assumptions’, ‘opinion’ or ‘advice’.
Fifth, vaccination for teenage children, exclusively with Covaxin (which means 15 crore doses for this sub-group) has other implications. Covaxin will also be needed for people coming for their first shot, returning for their second shot, and then for their ‘precaution dose’ if a third shot of the same vaccine is allowed. This should be an urgent reminder for a review of vaccine supply and better vaccine stock management.
Finally, the precaution dose and vaccination for children should not divert attention from the task of primary vaccination, which continues to be an unfinished task in India; 46 crore doses are still needed for the first and second shots.
Data for decision making
It was not that the booster dose or vaccination of children might have never been required. The discourse before the policy announcement on December 25 was more nuanced, was about the right time (when to start), the right interval (between second dose and the booster) and selecting the right vaccine (with proven benefit as booster). This was getting delayed partly due to the unavailability of COVID-19 related data to synthesise evidence and arrive at an informed decision.
It is time the Union and State governments in India make COVID-19 data — this includes clinical outcomes, testing, genomic sequencing as well as vaccination — available in the public domain. This would help in formulating and updating COVID-19 policy and strategies and also assess the impact of ‘precaution dose’ as well as vaccination of children.
It is also time that once technical and regulatory decisions are made, the relevant scientific evidence should be made available in the public domain. The Indian government urgently needs to make COVID-19 data available, including the one used for regulatory approvals of vaccines and for vaccine policy decisions. This will bring transparency in decision making and increase the trust of the citizen in the process.
Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, a physician-epidemiologist, is a public policy and health systems specialist based in New Delhi
2. Lack of political will
It is time to encourage fishermen to adopt sustainable practices to put an end to the Palk Bay conflict
Palk Bay, an important marine zone between south-eastern India and northern Sri Lanka, has been a source of dispute for long. The conflict between the two countries has flared up again with the arrest of 68 Indian fishermen, mostly from the Ramanathapuram and Pudukkottai districts of Tamil Nadu, by the Sri Lankan authorities between December 18 and 20 and the impounding of 10 boats for “poaching” in the territorial waters of Sri Lanka.
Palk Bay, home to diverse resources including 580 species of fish, extends from Point Calimere of Nagapattinam district to Mandapam-Dhanushkodi of Ramanathapuram district over about 250 km. With a shallow and flat basin, the region has an average depth of about nine metres.
The genesis of the dispute can be traced to the October 1921 negotiations between representatives of the Governments of Madras and Ceylon, as the Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Governments were called then, on the need for the delimitation of the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar. It was in the mid-1970s that two agreements were signed by India and Sri Lanka, under which the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) came into being. The IMBL made Katchatheevu a part of Sri Lanka, even though the islet, which former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had once called a “sheer rock of no strategic importance”, was once an area under the zamindari of the Raja of Ramanathapuram.
Contrary to the expectations that the agreements would settle the issues of boundary and fishing jurisdictions permanently, the pacts gave way to new problems, including the recurring incidents of Tamil Nadu fishermen crossing the IMBL and getting caught by the Sri Lankan authorities. On many occasions, several fishermen lost their lives. This year, five fishermen died in what was officially called collisions between their fishing boats and vessels of the Sri Lankan authorities.
The asymmetric nature of fishing practices in Tamil Nadu and the Northern Province of Sri Lanka is said to be the cause of the problem. While the former’s fishing community uses mechanised bottom trawlers, its counterpart uses conventional forms of fishing, as trawling is banned in Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu’s fishermen had the best run during the years of the Sri Lankan civil war with restrictions placed by the Sri Lankan Government and Tamil rebels on the activities of the fisherfolk of the Northern Province. Notwithstanding several risks and challenges, the fishermen of Tamil Nadu continue to cross the IMBL, as the Sri Lankan side of the Bay is considered to have more fishery resources than the Indian side.
Even though a section of specialists favours the creation of an international institution of stakeholders for regulating the fishing sector in the Bay, attempts are on to wean away the fishermen of Tamil Nadu from bottom trawling. The deep sea fishing project, launched in July 2017 amid much fanfare, has not yielded the desired results. Relaxation of norms of the project is under the consideration of the Union Government, to draw greater response from the fishermen. Given the fact that deep sea fishing takes a longer duration and has a higher recurring cost per voyage than what the fishing community experiences currently, the need for providing continuous motivation to the fisherfolk assumes critical importance. Experts say various strategies, including the promotion of seaweed cultivation, open sea cage cultivation, seaweed cultivation and processing, and sea/ocean ranching should be adopted. There is a view that if the community is encouraged to form fish farmer producer organisations, it may take to sustainable fishing practices. For all this to happen, sustained public pressure and political will are a must.
3. ‘Indianising’ the legal system and SC’s views
Judgments show conscious effort at getting rid of the ‘crutches’ of colonial influence
At least two Supreme Court judges have in the past few months openly expressed the need to “Indianise” the legal system.
In September, Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana called for the “Indianisation” of the legal system to provide greater access to justice to the poor as the “need of the hour”. “When I say ‘Indianisation’, I mean the need to adapt to the practical realities of our society and localise our justice delivery systems… For example, parties from a rural place fighting a family dispute are usually made to feel out of place in the court,” the CJI clarified.
On December 26, Justice S. Abdul Nazeer went a step further to underscore the need to embrace the “great legal traditions as per Manu, Kautilya, Katyayana, Brihaspati, Narada, Parashara, Yajnavalkya and other legal giants of ancient India”.
Justice Nazeer, speaking on the “Decolonisation of the Indian legal system” at the National Council meeting of the Akhil Bharatiya Adhivakta Parishad in Hyderabad, wondered what the “future model of our legal system ought to be”. He concluded that “there can be no doubt that this colonial legal system is not suitable for the Indian population. The need of the hour is the Indianisation of the legal system… to decolonise the Indian legal system”.
“Great lawyers and judges are not born but are made by proper education and great legal traditions as were Manu, Kautilya, Katyayana, Brihaspati, Narada, Parashara, Yajnavalkya and other legal giants of ancient India… continued neglect of their great knowledge and adherence to alien colonial legal system is detrimental to the goals of our Constitution and against our national interests,” Justice Nazeer said.
However, Supreme Court judgments themselves show that the Indian legal system had made an early start at consciously getting rid of the “crutches” of colonial influence. The evolution of laws in India has been through legislation and the binding precedents of the Supreme Court under Article 141 of the Constitution. The public interest litigation mechanism is truly Indian.
“We cannot allow our judicial thinking to be constricted by reference to the law as it prevails in England or for the matter of that in any other foreign country. We no longer need the crutches of a foreign legal order. We are certainly prepared to receive light from whatever source it comes from, but we have to build up our own jurisprudence,” the Supreme Court, speaking through then Chief Justice of India P.N. Bhagwati, had said with confidence in the M.C. Mehta case way back in 1986.
Again, the highest judiciary has far from indulged in a “continued neglect” of the legal greats of ancient India. Several judgments since the 1980s refer to the works of Manu and Kautilya.
In the privacy judgment, Justice S.A. Bobde (retired), referred to how “even in the ancient and religious texts of India, a well-developed sense of privacy is evident”. He mentions that Kautilya’s “Arthashastra prohibits entry into another’s house, without the owner’s consent”. But the court has also differed from the views of these ancient texts.
In its Joseph Shine judgment decriminalising adultery, the court refers to how “the Manusmriti, Chapters 4.1346 and 8.3527 prescribes punishment for those who are addicted to intercourse with wives of other men by punishments which cause terror, followed by banishment”.
In the Sabarimala case, the court points to the Manusmriti to observe that in these “ancient religious texts and customs, menstruating women have been considered as polluting the surroundings”. It went on to hold that “practices which legitimise menstrual taboos, due to notions of ‘purity and pollution’, limit the ability of menstruating women to attain the freedom of movement, the right to education and the right of entry to places of worship and, eventually, their access to the public sphere”.
4. Two more vaccines and a drug join India’s fight against COVID
Corbevax, Covovax shots and Molnupiravir get emergency use authorisation
India has approved two more COVID-19 vaccines and the antiviral drug Molnupiravir under emergency use authorisation, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya tweeted on Tuesday. Currently, India uses Covishield, Covaxin and Sputnik V for vaccination.
Corbevax, to be made by Hyderabad-based Biological E, is a protein subunit vaccine, and Covovax, to be manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, Pune, is a nanoparticle-based vaccine.
Corbevax has been co-developed by Biological E, the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, U.S., and the U.S. company Dynavax Technologies.
Covovax is produced by the Serum Institute of India under licence from Novavax, a U.S.-based biotechnology company. The vaccine has been approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) under its Emergency Use Listing and, therefore, will be available globally as part of the COVAX initiative to ensure that at least 40% of world is vaccinated on priority.
Molnupiravir, which was approved this month by the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration (USFDA), close on the heels of Paxlovid by Pfizer Inc, is said to be a promising drug for those with mild and moderate disease and also easily administered as a pill.
Thirteen companies in India are set to manufacture it. It has been approved under emergency use authorisation for treating adults with COVID-19 “who have high risk of progression to disease”.
USFDA urges caution
The USFDA, in a recent statement, said that because molnupiravir worked by introducing genetic errors into the virus, it ought to be prescribed with caution and was not recommended as a preventive and only in “certain adults” for whom alternative COVID-19 treatment options authorised by the FDA were not accessible or clinically appropriate. Paxlovid is yet to be approved in India.
Cipla, one of the licencees, said in a statement that it planned to launch Molnupiravir under the brand name Cipmolnu.
There were no details available on when these vaccines would be included in India’s vaccination programme. There are no studies so far to show how effective the new vaccines will be in giving protection against symptomatic infection when employed as a third dose.
5. The pertinent issue of trust and the Indian politician
High levels of criminality in politics could wreck India’s democracy and imperil subjective well-being
“In politics nothing is contemptible,” warned Benjamin Disraeli, a novelist, essayist, a Conservative politician and twice Prime Minister of England. He was of course largely right, as many politicians have criminal backgrounds and resort to lies. But there are also some who identify with the electorates, sensitive to their needs, and display a vision which transcends party politics.
Two questions are pertinent: does trust in politicians matter? Who trusts them or does not? These questions are highly pertinent in the present context as deep questions are being raised about the demise of democracy.
A relevant survey
In order to answer these questions, we rely on the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) released in 2015 (https://bit.ly/3py4dhq). Our analysis is based on two rounds of the nationally representative IHDS in 2005 and 2012. Besides being unique as an all-India panel survey, it is the only survey that asks questions on subjective well-being (SWB) and trust in public institutions such as State governments, the judiciary, the police and politicians. SWB or life satisfaction is defined as the degree to which an individual judges the overall quality of his/her own life-as-a-whole favourably. SWB is measured as perceived change in economic well-being of a household — specifically whether it is economically better-off, just the same and worse-off between 2004-5 and 2011-12. Trust is measured in ordinal levels of confidence: a great deal of confidence, only some confidence and hardly any confidence in both years.
Our analysis shows that SWB in 2012 and trust in politicians in 2005 are negatively related, controlling for the effects of trust in other public institutions and socio-economic characteristics of households in 2005. By contrast, trust in most other institutions is positively related to SWB. The reasons include: ideological disconnect, failure to deliver on promises, corrupt practices, collusion with the rich and the powerful, and links with criminals.
Under UPA rule
The second related question addressed in detail is who trusts the politicians or does not and why. One interesting finding is that those who trusted politicians in 2005 lost trust in 2012. While the economic performance of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was good, corruption became endemic. Those who fared well in terms of relative affluence (per capita expenditure of a household relative to the maximum in the primary sampling unit) exhibited high trust in politicians.
In other words, those benefiting more than others presumably believed that they owed it to politicians in power and hence expressed greater trust in them. Relative to the rural households, those in urban areas and slums reported lower trust. One reason is easier access to information in the latter relating to government policy failures, collusion of politicians with the rich and the powerful, and criminals.
Moreover, higher levels of education are negatively related to trust in politicians. Those with matriculation and higher levels of education are deeply sceptical, relative to the illiterates, as they are likely to be better aware of political skulduggery and shenanigans and not so easily swayed by rhetoric. Relative to the Hindus, neither the Muslims nor the Christians expressed lower trust in politicians, presumably because alienation of minorities was not so pronounced during UPA rule. The caste hierarchy throws up a fascinating contrast. Both the Brahmins who are at the top of this hierarchy and Dalits who are at the lower rung express high trust in politicians, relative to the Other Backward Classes, but perhaps for very different reasons. While as long as the superiority of Brahmins is not challenged and Dalits are protected through affirmative action, they are more likely to repose high trust in politicians. Affiliation to social networks — two or more — is positively associated with greater trust in politicians, as manifestation of collective identity, relative to those not affiliated to any.
Congruence of the needs of the electorates with politicians who serve their interests better matters. This is validated by how successful social safety net programmes are. For example, while widows’ pension and the Annapurna Scheme (10 kg of food grain to eligible aged persons who have remained uncovered under the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme)are negatively related to trust in politicians, disability pension is positively related.
The NDA years
This analysis serves as the backdrop to dramatic shifts in governance following the National Democratic Alliance’s overwhelming victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Overcentralisation deprived State governments of their autonomy while a relentless pursuit of Hindutva through blatantly discriminatory policies (e.g., the Citizenship (Amendment) Act) and often brutal application by communal activists against the minorities — especially Muslims (e.g., ghastly violence against cattle traders) and Dalits alienated them. How these shifts affected criminalisation of politics is difficult to assess, but recent evidence raises serious concerns.
Criminality among politicians has risen sharply. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), 24% of the winners in the 2004 Lok Sabha election had a criminal background; it rose to 30% in the 2009 general election, 34% in the 2014 elections, and 43% in the 2019 elections. Worse, 29% of those elected in 2019 had reported serious crimes including rape, murder, and culpable homicide. Between the two national parties, out of 303 winners from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 election, 116 (39%) had a criminal record as against 29 (56%) out of 52 winners from the Indian National Congress (INC). What is indeed alarming is that the probabilities of Members of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assemblies winning elections is about three times higher, relative to those without a criminal background.
Several studies converge on the finding that parties on the cusp of winning or losing a seat are more likely to nominate a candidate with a criminal background given his/her greater probability of winning. Such candidates are typically more resourceful, protect better local interests relating to land, physical security, and dignity where the rule of law is fragile, share a caste affiliation when political competition is “ethnified”, and constituencies are more fragmented with a lower threshold of winning. It is also argued that dominant parties are less likely to field criminal candidates as the marginal benefit of winning a seat matters less than the marginal cost of reputational loss. While most of these findings are plausible, it is intriguing why the two dominant parties (the BJP and the INC) show such high shares of criminal MPs and MLAs.
To conclude, high levels of criminality could wreck India’s democracy and imperil well-being.
6. The James Webb Space Telescope
What will the next-gen Webb telescope unveil? How is it different from Hubble? What will it enable us to see in the farthest reaches of the universe?
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), hurled into space by the Ariane 5 rocket will now be able to observe the farthest reaches of the universe without any atmospheric turbulence.
After a 29 day-long journey, the spacecraft with the telescope will arrive at a point in space called ‘Lagrange point 2’, also known as L2. At this point, the Earth-Sun system’s gravitational forces, and the spacecraft’s orbital motion would balance each other. Therefore, the spacecraft positioned at L2 will orbit the Sun, tagging along with the Earth in 365 days. It will also give the telescope the required temperature to detect faint signals from distant stellar objects.
As the JWST’s diameter is larger than that of Hubble’s it will collect more photons than Hubble’s 2.4 metres mirror. JWST will have about seven times as much light-gathering capability as Hubble. Therefore, the JWST would observe fainter stellar objects that Hubble cannot detect.
The story so far: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), hurled into space by the Ariane 5 rocket from European Space Agency’s Spaceport in French Guiana, South America, on December 25, at 7:20 am EST (5:50 pm IST), is en route to its destination. After a 29 day-long journey, the spacecraft will arrive at a point in space called ‘Lagrange point 2’, also known as L2. Costing $9.7 billion, this joint project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency is billed as the next-generation telescope. It is slated to unveil unseen distant parts of the universe and help fathom the mysteries of the cosmos.
What awaits the telescope in the next part of the journey?
The successful launch is just the beginning of an arduous nearly one-month journey. The telescope was intricately folded like an origami toy before it was launched. Now in space, hundreds of moving parts will need to fall in place precisely as designed for the telescope to unfold. In the next few weeks, step by step, various components have to be deployed before the telescope reaches its final configuration. A single misstep can reduce the whole telescope into space junk.
Speeding towards its destination, as of now, the JWST has successfully deployed its solar array, released its antenna and completed its mid-course correction burn. Before day 7, the sun-shield would be deployed. On day 10, nerves will be on edge as the engineers hoist its secondary mirror to its position. The rest of the mirror segments would be unfurled, step by step, before day 14. On day 29, the JWST is expected to fire its thrusters to enter its predestined orbit around L2. After it arrives at its destination, the 18 telescope mirror segments will have to be aligned flawlessly; this will take about 10 days. This will be followed by weeks of testing and calibration. The first image from the telescope is at least six months away.
Why are telescopes in space?
The thermal turbulence of the Earth’s atmosphere hinders telescopic observation of the universe. Stars twinkle, light from the faint stellar objects are absorbed by the thick lower atmosphere, and part of the spectrum, such as infrared rays from space, hardly reach the ground. By placing the telescopes on a high mountain top, we avoid as much atmosphere as possible. Yet the atmospheric turbulence hinders the super-sharp images of objects in space.
Telescopes in space altogether avoid the atmospheric disturbance and provide us with a clear, sharp and more profound vision of the farthest reaches of the universe. While the most giant ground-based telescopes revealed galaxies over 5 billion light-years away, the Hubble space telescope has identified the farthest known galaxy located at whooping 13.4 billion years in the past.
Why is JWST an infrared telescope?
The telescope mounted on the JWST is an infrared telescope. The invisible magical rays that change channels in our TV remote are infrared. They are like the visible light and radio waves, part of the electromagnetic spectrum, but of different wavelengths. Why take an infrared telescope rather than a telescope that can see the visible spectrum? The answer to this resides in the Big Bang.
After the Big Bang, galaxies, stars and planets evolved. Since the Big Bang, the universe has been in a constant state of expansion. As the universe expands, space stretches. As the light travels far in space, the wavelength elongates. Aged light turns redder. The light from the earliest massive young stars and nascent galaxies was predominately visible and ultraviolet. However, traversing the vast stretches of the expanding space, they turn into infrared rays before reaching the Earth. An infrared telescope is apt to observe the ancient, early universe, which is the primary goal of the JWST.
What is the temperature at L2?
Primarily, the JWST is designed to detect faint signals from distant stellar objects in the infrared region of the electromagnetic radiation. The IR telescope must be cooled to -220C or lower. About 15 million kilometres from Earth, four times the distance of the Moon, L2 is a bone-chilling cold place. At this point in space, the second Lagrange point (L2), the Earth-Sun system’s gravitational forces, and the spacecraft’s orbital motion would balance each other. Therefore, the spacecraft positioned at L2 will orbit the Sun, tagging along with the Earth in 365 days.
While satellites orbit around the Earth, they periodically move from sunlight into Earth’s shadow and back and are subject to thermal fluctuations. Placed at L2, JWST is permanently behind Earth. When seen from space, Sun and the spacecraft will appear on the opposite sides of Earth.
Even at L2, the Sun-facing side of the telescope will be at +85C. However, on the opposite side, the temperature is -233 C. Using the tennis court-sized sunscreen, the telescope would be protected from the Sun’s heat and glare.
Will JWST see better than Hubble?
Suppose we keep two tubs, one smaller radius and the other larger radius, in the open. During rain, the larger tub will collect a lot more rainwater than the smaller one during a given time. Likewise, the JWST telescope’s 6.5 metres in diameter will collect more photons than Hubble’s 2.4 metres mirror. JWST will have about seven times as much light-gathering capability as Hubble. Therefore, the JWST would observe fainter stellar objects that Hubble cannot detect. Farther a thing is, fainter it is. The JWST would see objects much farther in the universe with a bigger collecting area than Hubble. With its sharp eye, JWST can see details on a twenty-five paise coin (penny) held at a distance of 40 kilometres.
The average time for light to reach Earth from the Moon is about 1.282 seconds. This means the Moon shining bright is 1.282 seconds old. As the light takes nearly eight minutes from the Sun to reach the Earth, the image of the Sun we see is about eight minutes old. The Red giant star Betelgeuse (Thiruvathirai Nakshatra) is 548 light years away. Therefore, the light from this star must have commenced its journey roundabout when Azhagan Perumal Jatavarman Parakrama Pandyan coronated himself as king in 1473 AD. Take-home message: By looking far away, we look back in time.
How far can JWST peer into the past?
Let us imagine the time from the Big Bang to now as a year-long calendar. In this cosmic calendar, the Big Bang occurred precisely at midnight on January 1. In this timeline, right now is December 31 at midnight. The JWST would let us see the universe as it was all the way back to January 6. That was when the earliest stars started to shine. Literally, the JWST would take us on time travel to the unimaginable ancient past.
A telescope can detect an object and show how it looks. The spectroscope, a key instrument mounted on the telescope, can analyse the light rays and tell us what is there. From the spectral image, we can understand the elemental composition, the temperature of the stellar object and much more. Unlike the Hubble, JWST carries the spectrascope, which is expected to unravel the elemental composition of early stars and galaxies.