What Will the James Webb Space Telescope Uncover?

James Webb Space Telescope
An artist’s conception of the James Webb Space Telescope in space.

It’s getting actual now. After three a long time from conception by design, delays, setbacks, and threats of outright cancellation, the James Webb Space Telescope launches from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket no sooner than December 24th.

It’s superb to assume: the thought of the space telescope that will grow to be Webb was first proposed way again in 1989, earlier than the Hubble Space Telescope was even launched. The gigantic, foldable telescope was formally proposed throughout the 2001 decadal survey as a near-infrared workhorse that would probe every thing from exoplanetary techniques to the very earliest universe.

Webb telescope in cleanroom
The Webb telescope in the launch web site clear room.
NASA / Chris Gunn

But the highway to space hasn’t been simple. The venture devoured practically half of NASA’s overall astrophysics budget between 2010 and 2014, with projected prices ballooning from an preliminary $1 billion to an final price ticket of $11 billion. A Congressional proposal in 2011 nearly killed the venture solely. Ultimately, NASA footed $9.7 billion of the invoice, whereas companions in the European Space Agency kicked in $810 million and the Canadian Space Agency supplied $160 million.

Now, the telescope carries with it the hopes and goals of astronomers worldwide.

Folded primary mirror
Webb’s major mirror is folded and prepared for rocket encapsulation.

Webb is well one in all the most complicated and dear telescopes ever constructed. Headed in direction of a Lissajous halo orbit round the L2 Sun-Earth Lagrange level nearly 700 million miles past the orbit of the Moon, Webb is — not like Hubble — nicely past the vary of any attainable restore mission. It might want to unfold and deploy its seven-layer sunshade correctly the first time round.

The telescope’s major mirror, 6.5 meters (21 toes) throughout, is made from 18 hexagonal gold-plated beryllium segments, leading to a telescope 100 occasions extra highly effective than the 2.4-meter Hubble. Along with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory on the floor and the upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, Webb guarantees to push again the boundaries of contemporary astronomy.

Wavelengths probed by various space telescopes
Various space telescopes have probed gentle at completely different wavelengths. Shown listed below are Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory (X-rays and gamma rays), Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (lower-energy X-rays), Hubble Space Telescope (near-infrared by near-ultraviolet), James Webb Space Telescope (near- and mid-infrared), Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (microwaves), and the Very Large Array (radio).

The infrared observatory is usually touted as the successor to Hubble, however whereas Hubble noticed seen gentle and ultraviolet photons, Webb will specialise in near-infrared wavelengths (0.6 to twenty-eight.3 microns). While some infrared wavelengths are accessible from the floor, you actually need to move to space to see most of the infrared sky. While missions akin to NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s Hershel Space Observatory have given us a tantalizing view of the infrared universe, Webb will blow the doorways huge open on this discipline of astronomy.

“Webb will be transformative for astronomical research, just as Hubble has been,” says Heidi Hammel (NASA/GSFC). “Webb’s infrared capabilities will open up a new frontier for imaging and spectroscopy.”

The Science

Webb’s 10-year major mission will tackle 4 key science areas:

  • Trace the evolution of galaxy formation
  • Study star and planetary system formation
  • Characterize exoplanetary techniques and search for attainable indicators of life
  • Observe a few of the earliest stars that fashioned after the Big Bang
Universe timeline
Webb will be capable to look additional again in time than Hubble or Chandra, two of NASA’s Great Observatories.

“The observations I am most excited about are those of exoplanets,” says Mario Livio (University of Nevada, Las Vegas), who labored for years as a part of the Hubble group. “Especially, terrestrial exoplanets that are transiting their host star in the habitable zone. My hope is that [Webb] will be able to characterize the atmospheres of some of those planets.”

Graduate pupil Lisa Dang (McGill University) is likewise enthusiastic about the alternatives to study exoplanets and their atmospheres. “I’m so curious to know much better these observations are going to be and how much we will learn— we all know it’s going to be a great observatory, but how great—we just don’t know yet!”

Webb will take spectra of exoplanet atmospheres, enabling scientists to search for hints of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane on far-off worlds. Webb may make clear the nature of planets between Earth and Neptune in size, which although absent from the solar system make up half of all identified exoplanets. Webb will even catch star and planet formation in the act, by peering into dust- and gas-shrouded nebulae.

In the case of cosmology, JWST will be capable to detect redder wavelengths than any Great Observatory earlier than it, thereby trying additional again in space and time. The proposed COSMOS-Webb venture, for instance, goals to discover the universe 400,000 to 1 billion years after the Big Bang, again when the first stars had been simply beginning to shine, by inspecting the similar patch of sky as the well-known Hubble Deep Fields.

Simulated quasar observations
A simulated quasar commentary with NIRCAM.
NASA / ESA / CSA / J. Olmsted / STScI

Webb carries the following devices:

  • Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec): Designed by the European Space Agency (ESA) with contributions by NASA, NIRSpec will allow astronomers to see the gentle of the very first stars and galaxies.
  • Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam): NIRCam has a built-in coronagraph, enabling it to dam the gentle from host stars to picture close by exoplanets. It can even picture the earliest stars and galaxies in addition to younger stars in the Milky Way.
  • Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI): Similar to NIRCam, MIRI will work at longer, mid-infrared wavelengths.
  • Near-Infrared Imager Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS): Built by the Canadian Space Agency, NIRISS will observe wavelengths from 0.8 to five.0 microns, performing wide-field slitless spectroscopy together with aperture masking interferometry.

“This is a very intricate mission, on which a large number of people have worked very hard for decades,” says Livio. “I can only hope that both the launch and the telescope itself will work as expected. The feeling is somewhat similar to the one I had when my children were born.”

Post-launch Timeline

James Webb Space Telescope mission timeline
The timeline for JWST, from launch to L2. NASA

Some astronomers have already had observing proposals accredited, however earlier than science observations can start, Webb should attain its ultimate orbit, its sunshield should unfold, and devices should come on-line and be calibrated. The telescope will attain its ultimate orbit simply over two weeks after launch; commissioning will proceed for six months post-launch. Expect to see first gentle photographs from JWST in early 2022.

“The Webb launch is the epitome of real rocket science, and so I am of course nervous,” says Hammel. “There are back-up plans, and back-up plans for the back-up plans. We are ready for Webb to fly!”

Watch the launch stay subsequent week: NASA TV will start stay protection on Friday, December twenty fourth at 6:00 AM EST/11:00 Universal Time (UT).


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