Early on Christmas morning, NASA’s revolutionary new space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, was successfully launched into space after taking off on a European Ariane 5 rocket from South America. The launch marks the beginning of one of the most anticipated NASA missions in decades, a program that promises to transform the way we study the deepest depths of the Universe.
“From a tropical rainforest to the edge of time, James Webb embarks on a journey back to the birth of the Universe,” said Rob Navias, NASA’s broadcaster on the agency’s livestream, at the launch.
While the first trip to space may have been successful, the James Webb Space Telescope, also known as JWST, has another risky journey ahead. Over the next month, the spacecraft will travel to its final location 1 million miles from Earth. Along the way, the spacecraft will slowly unfold and reform to reach its final configuration, a process absolutely necessary for the telescope to observe the cosmos. There are hundreds of steps involved and there are plenty of times when one bad bet can jeopardize the entire mission.
But if it all works out, JWST will become one of the most important tools we’ve ever had for peering into the far reaches of space. With a 6.5-meter-wide gold-plated mirror, JWST will be able to collect infrared light from galaxies that have passed through space and time 13.6 billion light-years. So when JWST sees these distant clusters, it will see them as they were 13.6 billion years ago, right after the creation of the Universe as we know it. Astronomers believe that the Big Bang, which caused the expansion of our universe, happened 13.8 billion years ago.
In addition, JWST will observe every kind of cosmic object we can potentially see, from distant alien worlds and black holes, galaxies, supernovae and violent collisions between dense stars. And maybe we’ll see things along the way that we didn’t expect. “We’re definitely going to see surprises…that we can only dream of right now,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA. The edge.
JWST is often considered the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in orbit since 1990. However, JWST’s mirror will dwarf 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, faint objects. To emphasize JWST’s impressive capabilities, NASA claims that the telescope could capture the infrared light emitted by a bumblebee at a distance from the moon.
Astronomers have dreamed of the possibilities of JWST for the past two and a half decades, but turning those dreams into reality has been a grueling process. Scientists formally proposed a massive infrared space telescope in 1996, and early mission engineers hoped to launch such an observatory as early as 2007 for a price tag of just $1 billion. However, making the spacecraft took a lot more time and money than anyone expected. JWST missed one launch date after another as its budget increased by 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 adhered to a $8.8 billion cost cap. However, NASA blew through that and the full mission cost is now $9.7 billion.
Ultimately, JWST became known for being consistently late, with numerous test and construction accidents en route to launch. But after all the delays, hard work and lessons learned, JWST finally arrived at its launch site in French Guiana in October, by boat from California, where it had undergone final testing at prime contractor Northrop Grumman’s site. The accidents, however, followed the telescope to South America. While engineers were preparing the telescope for launch, a clamp containing JWST broke, sending vibrations through the vehicle. And until launch, flight crews were working on a communications problem with the ground systems supporting the flight.
After all that headache and tension, JWST miraculously made it into space this morning. “This countdown was as flawless as you can imagine,” said Navias.
But the telescope’s work has only just begun. JWST had to fly to space folded, because it is too massive to fit on an existing rocket in its final form. NASA and Europa agreed in the early 2000s to fly JWST on Arianespace’s premiere Ariane 5 rocket, citing the vehicle’s reliability. Although Ariane 5 is nearly 5.4 meters wide, it was still not large enough to carry JWST fully unfurled into space.
Now there is a long to-do list of implementations for the telescope. JWST has already deployed its solar panel to get power from the sun, and tomorrow it will deploy its high-gain antenna to communicate with Earth. After that, the telescope will slowly deploy different beams and structures and reconfigure its shape to detect infrared light from the distant universe. Perhaps the most crucial deployment is the lens hood, which consists of five thin layers of a material called Kapton. To see in infrared light, JWST must remain incredibly cold. The sunshade is key to absorbing heat from our sun, keeping JWST a frigid -370 degrees Fahrenheit. The deployment of the shield must be perfect to ensure the success of the mission.
Once that’s complete, JWST will fully deploy its primary mirror, which also had to be folded into space. The final test comes about 29 days from today, when JWST fires its onboard engines and places itself in its final orbit 1 million miles from Earth. It will live there for the rest of its life, always facing away from the sun, until it runs out of fuel in five or ten years. NASA provides live tracking of JWST’s position in space, as well as the status of all these critical deployments.
Even if all those steps go well, it will take some time for the science of JWST to kick in. First, it needs to cool to cryogenic temperatures, and then scientists will need to test all JWST instruments to make sure they work properly. There’s a wait of about six months, but if we’re lucky, the first incredible images of JWST could be available this summer. NASA won’t say what those first images will be, but they promise to be stunning.
“We want to surprise the world with what these images will be,” Amber Straugn, the deputy project scientist for JWST at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, tells WebMD. The edge. “And those first scientific images are of course considered beautiful, stunning, amazing images. And I myself can’t wait to see what they are and to see what they look like.”