NASA’s huge James Webb Space Telescope is one month from launch

The long-awaited launch of NASA’s subsequent generational observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, is simply one month away.

The $9.8 billion Webb has overcome years of technical delays, funding points and a pandemic to get to launch day in French Guiana, which is set for no earlier than Dec. 18.

Webb could have an ambitious science agenda stretching from learning small worlds in our solar system to surveying the outer reaches of the universe. “We’re going to look at everything there is in the universe that we can see,” Webb senior challenge scientist John Mather advised reporters in a press convention on Wednesday (Nov. 18). 

Related: Building the James Webb Space Telescope (photos)

“We want to know, How did we get here?” added Mather, who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “The Big Bang, How does that work? We’ll look, yes, and we have predictions. But we don’t honestly know [how].”

Serving because the successor to NASA’s venerable Hubble Space Telescope, Webb will journey to a distant vacation spot about 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth often known as a Lagrange level, a gravitationally steady spot between two celestial our bodies. 

It will take Webb a month to get there after launch. Then, the observatory will endure a six-month commissioning interval that can embody a wide range of key milestones, from the unfurling of its advanced mirror to making sure that every one devices are working accurately, earlier than Webb opens its eyes.

“At six and a half meters [21 feet], the primary mirror was too big to fit in a rocket, so we designed it so that would it would unfold in space,” Lee Feinberg, Webb optical telescope aspect supervisor at Goddard, stated throughout right now’s briefing. “It doesn’t fold like a drop leaf table, so … we needed mirrors that had to be in segments.”

The mirrors, Feinberg added, initially act like 18 separate telescopes, and it’ll take algorithms a number of months to align them correctly, to a precision of one-5,000th the diameter of a human hair. And that is assuming the telescope unfurls all of them correctly, which (regardless of years of testing and modeling) NASA has stated is one of the largest technical obstacles Webb will face.

Webb investigators are coy about what the telescope will deal with first as soon as it is prepared. But clues come from the checklist of “early release science programs” that can prioritize Webb’s core science within the examine of planets, the solar system, galaxies, black holes, stellar physics and star populations. 

The first photographs will probably be in excessive demand, as mission scientists say the decision will probably be 100 occasions higher than that of Hubble and can reveal rather more in infrared (or warmth) wavelengths than the elder telescope can.

While the primary targets haven’t but been determined upon, Webb will quickly be turning the clock again on observations of the universe, offering a take a look at the cosmos because it was simply 100 million years after the Big Bang. Hubble has allowed scientists to see again to 400 million years after the Big Bang, so Webb will fill a niche, Mather stated.

Canada is offering a high-quality steering sensor for pointing Webb, together with a spectrograph for analyzing exoplanets and galaxies. The nation receives a assured 5% share of observing time for its contribution.

“One Canadian team will focus their studies on the atmospheres of exoplanets to determine their compositions and temperatures. Another Canadian team will study some of the first galaxies ever formed and galaxies gathered in dense neighborhoods called clusters,” stated Sarah Gallagher, an advisor to the Canadian Space Agency president.

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What excites scientists most is the unpredictability of what Webb will reveal, and even a quick look at Hubble historical past offers loads of examples. At Hubble’s launch in April 1990, no one knew of the existence of dark energy, a elementary affect in cosmic enlargement. Exoplanets additionally hadn’t been confirmed but, and but right now we all know of 1000’s.

Hubble even discovered some surprises nearer to dwelling, reminiscent of when it helped NASA’s New Horizons Pluto probe steer correctly round some new discoveries. “Hubble discovered two new moons of Pluto that could help the New Horizons probe [navigate] the physics of that world a few years ago,” stated Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb challenge scientist on the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “We think Webb will would be no different in that sense.”

Although launch day is at all times anticipated to induce butterflies, Greg Robinson, NASA’s Webb program director, stated he is assured the staff will pull by to make these science discoveries a actuality. 

“We test as much as possible, as practical. We call it test as you fly,” he stated. “We tested the same way it’s going to operate, based on a launch. And so we’ve done all of that, and I think we’re in pretty good shape.”

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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