Who Would Kidnap a Space Telescope?

An illustration of NASA's new space telescope sailing on water, with a pirate flag waving overhead
Getty / NASA / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

NASA’s new space telescope has had a rough go. Name a problem, and this telescope—meant to be the most powerful of its kind, a worthy successor to the famous Hubble—has faced it: poor management, technical errors, budget overruns, schedule delays, and a pandemic. So, naturally, the people responsible for the telescope’s safety are now thinking about pirates.

Yes, pirates.

The topic came up at a recent meeting about NASA’s James Webb space telescope, named for a former administrator of the space agency. Later this year, the telescope will travel by ship to a launch site in South America, passing through the Panama Canal to reach French Guiana. Webb, with a mirror as tall as a two-story building and a protective shield the size of a tennis court, is too large for a plane. Its departure date will be kept secret, someone said at the meeting, to protect against pirates who might want to capture the precious cargo and hold it for ransom. Christopher Conselice, an astrophysicist at the University of Manchester who attended the meeting, was at first baffled by the concern because, well, pirates, but it quickly clicked.

“Why would you announce that you’re going to be shipping on a certain day something that is worth over $10 billion,” he explained to me, “that you could easily put in a boat” and sail away with?

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When Conselice tweeted about the meeting, other scientists responded with jokes about swashbucklers and starrrs. But the playful commentary carried a hint of unease. The James Webb space telescope has taken far longer to develop than anyone anticipated; after more than 20 years of work, it’s finally supposed to launch in late October. This is the homestretch. There are many more realistic circumstances that could derail the mission than marauders at sea, but for a project that has been through so much—for a telescope that was initially supposed to launch in 2007, the year the first iPhone was released—pirates might as well happen too.

A NASA spokesperson told me Webb will sail sometime in late July or mid-August, but did not respond to questions about specific measures, such as whether the U.S. military will escort the vessel. All this secrecy is just one more precaution. But the concern is not entirely unfounded. Telescopes are strange, elaborate, expensive objects, and they attract attention. (Webb is particularly enticing; with 18 gold-plated mirrors arranged in a honeycomb shape, the instrument will be perhaps the most ornate telescope in space.) The history of astronomy research is sprinkled with shipping mishaps and sinister plots, driven by very earthly motivations.

One of the earliest known calamities of this category occurred at the Allegheny Observatory, in Pittsburgh, in 1872. The astronomer Samuel Langley, the observatory’s director, had just returned from a conference when his employees rushed him to the top of the building. The lens of the observatory’s telescope had been stolen. “The story goes that Langley receives a letter in the mail from the foul fiend, and he says, ‘Meet me in the woods behind the observatory at midnight, or you’ll never see your lens again,’” Lou Coban, the observatory’s manager, told me. Langley and the thief met and “argued into the night”; the astronomer refused to pay the thief’s ransom, believing that it would spur “lens-napping” at other institutions. Langley managed to persuade the thief to divulge the location of the lens in exchange for keeping the man’s identity out of the papers. The hardware was found stuffed in the trash behind a nearby hotel, so scratched up that the observatory had to send it off for repairs.

Perhaps the most dramatic mishap in modern history is the story of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, or JCMT for short. In 1984, a steel structure for the observatory was prepared for transport from England, where it was built, to Hawaii, where it would protect the telescope. According to Richard Hills, a JCMT project scientist, the vessel hired to transport the structure broke down at the last minute, and the job was given to a commercial captain and his small boat. The captain was supposed to sail right to Hawaii.

Instead, the boat sailed to Holland, where it picked up a shipment of dangerous explosives, presumably for a side job. The boat then idled outside the Panama Canal, purportedly awaiting special clearance for its explosive cargo, before heading to Ecuador, where it unloaded the stuff. The JCMT team had no line of communication to the captain during this quite unauthorized trek. Officials could track the boat’s whereabouts only by frantically checking shipping ledgers. And all the while, JCMT’s steel exterior sat piled up on the boat’s deck.

After 10 long weeks, the boat eventually made it to Hawaii. By then, the penalty fees that the captain had incurred for the late arrival nearly matched the payment he was owed for the delivery itself. The captain, floating just outside territorial waters, sent a threatening message to shore, Hills told me: “Either you pay me in full or I’m just going to dump this steel into the sea and say goodbye.” The JCMT team managed to get a court order that instructed the captain, under laws that governed “piracy on the high seas,” to give up the boat. According to Hills, the Coast Guard delivered the document to the rogue boat, nailed the paper to the mast of the ship—a maritime custom, apparently—and arrested the captain at gunpoint. Hills suspects that the man was not paid for the rather subpar job.

Most incidents of this nature have not been so dramatic. In 2002, telescope mirrors shipped to Chile arrived damaged and broken, an unfortunate result of the long journey from Europe. NASA also has a lengthy history of going incognito when transporting its expensive, universe-exploring machines. In most cases, the telescopes traveling in disguise arrive at their destinations without issue. Karen Knierman, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University, told me that in 2003 she spotted a truck on the highway that turned out to be carrying the Spitzer space telescope to Florida, the only indication of the hidden freight being a small NASA logo on the vehicle. But in 2012, a trailer carrying a NASA telescope disappeared on its way from Minnesota to Texas. When NASA officials panicked, an employee from the trucking company set off in search of the missing cargo and found the driver asleep in the truck, with the telescope-toting trailer nowhere in sight. It was eventually discovered abandoned at a car wash in Dallas, and the driver claimed that it had been stolen.

There’s no particular reason to think something untoward will happen to the James Webb telescope. And the voyage to South America isn’t even the most dangerous part of the mission. Nor is the rocket launch, which one scientist described to me as “quite literally putting all our eggs in one basket, and then attaching this basket to about 2,000 tons of high explosives.” For scientists and engineers, the most stressful event will come as Webb travels to its orbit, 1 million miles from Earth, and begins to deploy itself in a complicated, automated sequence of hundreds of tiny maneuvers. The telescope can sustain only so many glitches in this process. If something goes wrong, there’s no fixing it. The Hubble space telescope, which launched in 1990 and orbits a relatively cozy 340 miles from home, was made for visits from astronauts to repair the observatory. Webb is not.

Even if this new telescope encounters some obstacles in transit—pirates or otherwise—history suggests that it should reach its distant orbit just fine. JCMT is still in operation, and most recently provided data for the controversial detection of a possible sign of life in the clouds of Venus. The replacement lens at the Allegheny Observatory still works, and, on clear nights, Coban uses it to show visitors Jupiter and Saturn. If Webb’s deployment goes smoothly, the telescope should spot the faint light from the most distant stars and galaxies, the very first in the universe, and detect potentially life-giving molecules in the atmospheres of faraway planets. In the story of our existence—the rise of tiny organisms in Earth’s oceans, the creation of the planet, the birth of the solar system, the formation of the Milky Way galaxy—Webb will reach into the earliest chapter, to the moments after the universe began.

“It could really revolutionize the entire field,” Conselice said, “so we hope pirates don’t take it.”