I’m feeling anxious about it already and it isn’t slated to happen until October 2018. I’m talking about the launch of the long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Huge amounts of time and energy (and money) have been funneled into this telescope. It’s a nail-biter unlike other launches because you can’t just turn around and redo this if it fails.
If successful, this telescope will enable some serious science. I read a quote from one astronomer who said that with the JWST, in one day we’ll learn more than everything we currently know about the first galaxies in the universe. It’s designed for viewing the first luminous objects after the Big Bang, and learning how they developed.
Interestingly, another one of its tasks is to directly observe and photograph planets around other stars. Spectroscopy might tell us something about an exoplanet’s weather, color, and maybe even help identify whether there is vegetation.
A few other amazing things I didn’t know:
- Whereas the Hubble Telescope sits within somewhat easy reach over the earth (550 km up), the JWST will be 1.5 million km away – out at an Earth-Sun Lagrange point. That’s outside the Earth’s orbit but in a gravitationally stable point. No repair missions are possible.
- One reason it has to be this far away is that an infrared telescope like this needs to be cold. This one must be kept at an incredible -233 C, which is 50 degrees above absolute zero. At the Lagrange point, the JWST will keep one side permanently facing the Earth and Sun. That side has a sunshield “the size of a small tennis court.” It blocks light and heat from the warm side of the spacecraft so the telescope on the cold side can make its observations without interference from the infrared radiation.
- The main mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter, more than twice as large as the Hubble. It’s made of 18 segments that will unfold after launch.
You see why I’m already worried? There are so many bits and pieces that have to go right, not to mention the launch itself. If it all goes as planned, this will be stupendous. Of course, the Mars rover missions were incredibly complex and they worked, so maybe …