As the James Webb Space Telescope heads into space, we explore what we need to know about the powerful observation tool. Let's begin with its name: it was named after one of the architects of the Apollo Moon landings.
It is the successor to the Hubble telescope but has been built to be 100 times more powerful. It saw the cooperation of the U.S., European and Canadian space agencies in almost 30 years of research and work.
At its core lies a 21.32 ft-wide (6.5m) gold-coated mirror, almost three times wider than the primary reflector on Hubble. It boasts enlarged optics and four super-sensitive instruments.
The hope is that astronomers will be able to look deeper into space than ever before, going all the way back to the time of the pioneer stars that put an end to the darkness believed to have taken over the cosmos shortly after the Big Bang.
This means the observatory will have to look back to more than 13.5 billion years ago. The telescope will also probe the atmospheres of distant planets to explore whether these worlds are habitable and whether alien life exists.
To achieve all this, JWST has to reach an observing station some 932 thousand miles (1.5 million km) beyond the Earth and then unfurl itself into its full active configuration.
It then has to get very cold — to about minus 233 degrees Celsius (-387 deg. F) — in order to be able to take the sensitive pictures it needs to deliver of the faraway Universe where the first galaxies came to be as well as of other planets and their corresponding star systems.
During these crucial times, a lot of things can go wrong with the telescope but scientists are hoping all obstacles will be avoided. Then, and only then, can the $10 billion project achieve its true purpose: answering the mysterious question of how the Universe began.
What's next for JWST?
- First day: JWST will make mid-course corrections to reach L2. These are the first and most important trajectory correction maneuvers. Also, the high gain antenna will be deployed to enable a higher data communication bandwidth as early as practical.
- First week: Sunshield deployment. Shortly after a second trajectory correction maneuver, major deployments will commence.
- First month: Telescope deployment, cooldown, instrument turn-on, and insertion into orbit around L2.
- Second, third, and fourth months: Initial optics checkouts, and telescope alignment. Scientists will point Webb at a single bright star and demonstrate that the observatory can acquire and lock onto targets, and we will take data mainly with NIRCam. But, there will be up to 18 distorted images of the same single target star, because the mirrors are not yet aligned.
- Fifth and sixth months: Calibration and completion of commissioning. All instruments onboard will be meticulously calibrated while observing representative targets, and the ability to track “moving” targets will be demonstrated (i.e. nearby objects like asteroids, comets, moons, and planets in our own solar system).
- After six months: “Science operations!” Webb will begin its science mission and start to conduct routine science operations.
If you want to follow JWST on its journey, visit this NASA page.