Feb 21

Jimmy Buffett Inspires NASA Look Into Distant Universe

Stephen Bierman
Jan 31, 2022
Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Jimmy Buffett’s boozy, slightly stoned music doesn’t seem a likely soundtrack for anything coming into focus. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has successfully launched into orbit one million miles from Earth – and it’s starting a process that will yield the closest ever look into the distant universe.

The move marks another exciting achievement for NASA after it launched the first robot helicopter flight on Mars last year.

“We are now ready to align mirrors and commission instruments and have already proven that all the hardware associated with the optics (including 132 actuators) is working beautifully,” said Bill Ochs, Webb project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “By the time we get to instrument commissioning, we are going to have one hell of a telescope.”

Ochs marked the moment and his gratitude to his team by quoting Buffett lyrics (and calling himself a “Parrot Head,”) from a song he heard on the radio:

“And I know these stories were sailed way before me
Toss a note in a bottle and hope that it helps
I’m so damn lucky to have an all-star crew
Some stoic, some crazy, some just passin’ through
I know I’m so privileged to work with the best and
I’m all done explaining or passin’ some test
So pour me another, it’s good for my health
I’m not ready to put the book on the shelf.”

Jimmy Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band are best known for music which portrays what’s been dubbed “island escapism.” Some of their best-known songs include “Margaritaville,” “Come Monday” and “Cheeseburgers in Paradise.”

The NASA team concerned itself with a slightly different radio station following Webb’s insertion into orbit. It turned on the High-Gain Antenna, enabling downlink to Earth through the Deep Space Network using the Ka radio band.

The Ka-band provides a much higher data rate than the S-band that Webb has used for communications until now. The Ka-band and the High-Gain Antenna will eventually allow the observatory to send images and data to the ground. These will be used by astronomers around the world to analyse and make discoveries, according to NASA.

The next phase will involve Webb focusing on a star labelled as HD 84406 to gather engineering data to start the mirror alignment process. The team chose a bright star (magnitude 6.7 at a distance of about 260 lightyears, as measured by Gaia). The star is a sun-like G star in the Ursa Major constellation, which can be seen by Webb at this time of year.

This is just the first step; HD 84406 will be too bright to study with Webb once the telescope starts to come into focus. But for now, it is the perfect target to begin the search for photons, a search that will lead us to the distant universe, according to NASA.

And much credit to Ochs for managing to see clearly, despite the influence of Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band. The world awaits an amazing new glimpse into deep space. 

Stephen Bierman

Stephen Bierman is a finance and energy reporter with over 15 years of experience, including at Bloomberg News and Energy Intelligence.

Tweets at: @StephenBierman1

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