WASHINGTON, DC, Dec 30 – No, it wasn’t Santa’s sleigh you saw in the wee hours of Christmas morning; it was NASA’s massive James Webb Space Telescope [JWST] making its way through the heavens on a million-mile journey that will put it in orbit around the sun.
According to NASA, the Webb telescope “will be a giant leap forward in our quest to understand the Universe and our origins. JWST [a joint venture that includes the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and NASA] will examine every phase of cosmic history: from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang to the formation of galaxies, stars, and planets to the evolution of our own solar system.”
It took two decades, an expenditure of nearly $10 billion, and too many sleepless nights to build and launch the super-scope – the most powerful of its kind. The weeks and days leading up to the Christmas day launch of the Webb telescope on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, South America, were fraught with concerns that something could go wrong.
As Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale put it before the launch: “The entire astronomy community, given the broad range of anticipated science returns and discovery potential, has skin in the game. We are all intellectually and emotionally invested.”
However, the launch went off without a hitch. But the nail-biting is not over yet and won’t be for another six months, in which time the unmanned telescope will execute precision maneuvers to unfurl its so-called “golden mirror.” It will also have to deploy a giant plastic screen to protect its instrument arrays, bearing in mind that there’s no way to fix it should something go wrong. Astrophysicist Michael Turner, former president of the American Physical Society, told the New York Times that it is a time of “excitement and terror.” As he put it: “The next decade of astronomy and astrophysics is predicated on J.W. being successful and U.S. prestige and leadership in space and science are also on the line. That is a heavy burden to carry, but we know how to do great things.”
Currently, 21st-century technology allows us to go back and see how the Universe evolved when it was just 500 million to 600 million years old – nearly 13 billion years ago. “However, logic dictates that at some point during the first few hundred million years, these familiar-looking objects must have come from somewhere and evolved. After all, galaxies don’t spring up from nothing, virtually overnight,” says Marcia Rieke. She’s a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona and helped build the Near Infrared Camera on the Webb telescope.
When the Webb-scope is fully deployed, it will give us a glimpse of how the first galaxies in our Universe were formed. John Mather, NASA’s senior scientist on the JWST project, says the goal is “to know how did we get here from the Big Bang? We want to look at those first galaxies growing. There are dark areas of dust skewing our view of those earliest times when the stars are growing, but we can see them with infrared.”
One of the features that distinguishes the JWST from previous space scopes, such as the Hubble Telescope, which was launched in 1990, is its primary mirror. It consists of 18 hexagonal segments made of gold-coated beryllium, which provides a much larger light-collecting field. That allows it to see objects at greater distances and further back into time. It will provide a peep into the past that has never before been seen. Instead of looking back five or six hundred million years after the Big Bang that gave birth to our Universe, it will allow us to explore the cosmos going back to just 100 million years after the Big Bang.
The Washington Post, in a report published on the day of the Webb-scope launch, quoted astronomer Matt Mountain, a member of the telescope’s design team. As he put it, “Tens of thousands of people have committed over 20 years or more on a single project. And why? Why have they committed this time? We solve incredibly hard problems. It’s part of the human spirit. We’re curious. We explore.”