Early on Christmas morning, NASA’s revolutionary new space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, successfully launched into space after taking off on top of a European Ariane 5 rocket from South America. The launch marks the start of one of NASA’s most anticipated missions in decades, a program that promises to transform the way we study the deepest depths of the Universe.
“From a tropical rainforest on the edge of time itself, James Webb begins a journey to the birth of the Universe,” Rob Navias, NASA’s announcer on the agency’s livestream, said during the lift-off.
While the initial space trip may have been successful, it remains a risky trip for the James Webb Space Telescope, also known as JWST. Over the next month, the spacecraft will travel to its final location 1 million kilometers from Earth. Along the way, the spacecraft will slowly unfold and reshape itself to reach its final configuration, a process absolutely necessary for the telescope to observe the cosmos. There are hundreds of steps involved and many times when a bad deployment could jeopardize the whole mission.
But if everything works, JWST will become one of the most important tools we’ve ever had for scanning the far corners of space. With a gold-plated mirror 21 feet or 6.5 meters wide, JWST will be able to collect infrared light from galaxies that have crossed 13.6 billion light years in space and time. So when JWST sees these distant clusters, it will see them as they were 13.6 billion years ago, just after the birth of the Universe as we know it. Astronomers believe that the Big Bang, which triggered the expansion of our Universe, happened 13.8 billion years ago.
In addition to that, JWST will observe all types of cosmic objects we can see, from distant alien worlds and black holes, galaxies, supernovae and violent collisions between dense stars. And maybe we’ll see things we weren’t expecting along the way. “We will, without a doubt, see surprises … which we can only dream of at the moment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate of NASA. The edge.
JWST is often regarded as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been orbiting the Earth since 1990. However, JWST’s mirror will eclipse the Hubble mirror, which is only 2.4 meters wide. This next-generation observatory promises to be 10 to 100 times more sensitive than Hubble and much more capable of picking up distant and faint objects. To underline JWST’s impressive capabilities, NASA says the telescope would be able to pick up infrared light emitted by a drone located a distance from the Moon.
Astronomers have dreamed of JWST’s capabilities for the past two and a half decades, but turning those dreams into reality has been an exhausting process. Scientists officially proposed a massive infrared space telescope in 1996, and the first mission engineers hoped to launch such an observatory as early as 2007 for a price as low as $ 1 billion. However, the creation of the spaceship took a lot more time and money than expected. JWST missed one target launch date after the next as its budget ballooned into billions of dollars. Congress even tried to cancel the project at one point due to rising costs, but agreed to continue funding the mission if NASA stuck to a cap of $ 8.8 billion. However, NASA missed this and the total cost of the mission now stands at $ 9.7 billion.
Ultimately, JWST became known for its constant delay, with a lot of testing and construction incidents on the way to its launch. But after all the delays, hard work and lessons learned, JWST finally arrived at its launch site in French Guiana in October, traveling by boat from California, where it was undergoing final testing at its main contractor Northrop site. Grumman. However, mishaps followed the telescope to South America. As engineers prepared the telescope for launch, a clamp holding JWST snapped and sent vibrations through the vehicle. And until launch, the flight crew was working on a communication issue with the ground systems that took over the flight.
After all the headaches and strains, JWST miraculously hit space in one piece this morning. “This countdown was as perfect as you can imagine,” said Navias.
But the telescope’s work has only just begun. JWST had to fly in folded space because it is too massive to fit on any existing rocket in its final form. NASA and Europe agreed to fly JWST on Arianespace’s first Ariane 5 rocket in the early 2000s, citing the vehicle’s reliability. Although Ariane 5 is almost 18 feet or 5.4 meters wide, it still wasn’t large enough to carry JWST into fully deployed space.
Now, a long list of deployments is in store for the telescope. JWST has already deployed its solar panel to get energy from the Sun, and tomorrow it will deploy its high gain antenna to communicate with Earth. After that, the telescope will slowly deploy various beams and structures, reconfigure its shape so that it can observe infrared light from the Far Universe. Perhaps its most crucial deployment is its lens hood, made of five thin layers of a material called Kapton. To see in infrared light, JWST has to stay incredibly cold. The sun visor is essential for absorbing the heat from our sun, allowing JWST to stay freezing to -370 degrees Fahrenheit. The deployment of the shield must be perfect to guarantee the success of the mission.
Once this is completed, JWST will fully deploy its primary mirror, which was also to launch into the folded space. The final test will take place in approximately 29 days from today, when JWST will fire its on-board thrusters and enter its final orbit 1 million kilometers from Earth. There it will live the rest of its life, still pointed away from the Sun, until it runs out of fuel in five or ten years. NASA is providing live tracking of JWST’s position in space, as well as the status of all these critical deployments.
Even if all of these steps go well, it will be some time before the science of JWST begins. First, it needs to cool to cryogenic temperatures, and then scientists will need to test all of JWST’s instruments to make sure they are working properly. A wait of around six months is expected, but if we’re lucky the first incredible images from JWST could be available this summer. NASA won’t say what those first images will be, but they promise to be breathtaking.
“We want to surprise the world with what these images are going to be,” said Amber Straughn, associate scientist for the JWST project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The edge. “And those early scientific images, of course, are seen as beautiful, breathtaking, amazing images. And myself, I can’t wait to see what they are and what they look like.
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