So it seems a bit odd that it uses such an old technology; according to Dashevsky and Balzano, the language in which the scripts are written is called Nombas ScriptEase 5.00e. According to Nombas’ (now defunct) website, the last update to ScriptEase 5.00e was released in January 2003 – yes, almost two decades ago. There are those who can vote who weren’t born when the software that controls some of the JWST’s most vital instruments came out.
This knowledge is bubbling up on the internet in Hacker News and Twitter threads for years, but it still surprised quite a few of us here The edge once it really clicked. At first glance, it seems odd that such a vital (not to mention expensive) piece of scientific equipment would be controlled by a very old version of a technology not exactly known for being robust.
However, after thinking about it for a bit, the age of the software makes a little more sense – while the JWST launched in late 2021, the project has been in the works since 1989. When the telescope was built started in 2004ScriptEase 5 would have been only about two years old, with launched in 2002. That’s actually not particularly old, since spacecraft are often powered by proven technology rather than the latest and greatest. Since projects like the JWST take (literally) to get off the ground (literally), things that had to be pinned down early can seem outdated by more conventional standards as launch day rolls around.
This knowledge base also contains a few more details about: the telescope’s 68 GB SSD, and says it can hold anywhere from 58.8 to 65 gigabytes of actual scientific data. Wait, did I forget to mention that? Yes, this telescope’s solid-state drive has about the same capacity as the one available in the original 2008 MacBook Air.
Well, NASA’s paper says this way of doing things “gives operations personnel greater visibility, control, and flexibility over telescope operations,” allowing them to easily change the scripts “while learning the ramifications and subtleties of operating the instruments.” Basically, NASA works with a bunch of files written in somewhat human-readable format – if they need to make changes, they can just open a text editor, a lot from ground testing and then send the updated file to the JWST. It’s certainly easier (and therefore probably less error-prone) than having every program written in secret code that you would have to recompile if you wanted to make changes.