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Humanity’s last glimpse of our new space telescope before it travels 1M miles to L2 base

From a tropical island to the beginning of time the world has a NASA Christmas gift – The James Webb Space Telescope has begun its 10 year mission!

An Ariane 5 rocket launched today (Dec. 25 2021) from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 7:20 a.m. EST (1220 GMT; 9:20 a.m. local time in Kourou), carrying the highly anticipated, long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope — and the hopes and dreams of the world — into the final frontier. The massive telescope is designed to capture infrared light, especially from galaxies so far away that their light has been traveling through space for the entire history of our universe.

The most powerful space telescope ever built will gaze at the universe’s first stars and galaxies, sniff the atmospheres of nearby alien planets for signs of life, and perform a variety of other high-profile, high-impact science like detecting Dark Matter, over the next 5 to 10 years.

Massimo Stiavelli, head of the JWST mission office said: “the easy part is done, and the hard part starts now.” Then he laughs. “It’s the best Christmas ever.”

Back to the Beginning

The telescope that would become JWST was already under discussion even before the Hubble telescope (HST) launched in April 1990. By orbiting Earth, HST would have a line of sight free of the optical distortions caused by our planet’s atmosphere. It would therefore be able to see farther across the universe (and farther back in time) than any terrestrial telescope.

The Next Generation Space Telescope (as the future JWST was then called) would be looking at the universe in infrared. Cosmic expansion has stretched visible light emitted more than 13 billion years ago into the infrared, called redshift.

JWST will be able to see 100 million years after the big bang, a period when most matter consisted of only the primordial elements and was just beginning to coalesce into stars and galaxies. From the inception of JWST, the primary goal has been to glimpse these phenomena—the first luminous objects in the universe. Called Cosmic Dawn

Infrared studies can also be done closer to home.

The Search for Life In Space

Billions and billions! A simulation of JWST’s field of view shows distant galaxies

The other major scientific frontier that JWST will probe is one that has received less attention but might prove to be just as profound in our understanding of the universe. It’s a bonus of sorts, a subject of study those 1980s-era visionaries did not foresee: exoplanets.

Evidence for planets orbiting stars other than the sun first emerged in the 1990s (a finding that earned discoverers a share of the 2019 Nobel Prize). Since then, astronomers have found exoplanets by the thousands. Almost all of these discoveries, however, rely on indirect evidence: the regular brightening and dimming of a star as a planet transits across its face, or the wobble in a star’s axis.

JWST should offer direct evidence: observations of the planets themselves, a feat only a few other facilities can accomplish and none with the promised clarity of this telescope. By observing in the infrared JWST will reduce the contrast so that the planets can pop out from the background stellar glare. That helps observers probe the atmospheres of a handful of worlds for potential biosignatures such as oxygen (produced on Earth by photosynthetic plants) as well as tracers of habitability such as water and carbon dioxide.

In short: JWST offers a chance to answer an eternal question: Are we alone?

“That’s where the big discoveries will be,” predicts Nicholas Suntzeff, an astronomer at Texas A&M and former vice president of the American Astronomical Society. “Is there other life in the universe? If so, it would have to be the biggest discovery in science ever.”

Telescope Trek

Many of the members of the JWST project were not yet born when HST launched in 1990.

Significant setbacks — technical, political, weather — have preceded the launch. The original budget estimate was a rough $1.5 billion to $3 billion, and its similarly hazy launch date was around 2010. By that time, however, not only had costs risen to $5 billion but much of the telescope was still on the drawing board. The development of JWST’s myriad new technologies was proving more intractable than planners had first imagined.

Would Congress dare to cancel an approved scientific mission of such ambition? Yes, it would — and once did. In October 1993, Congress passed a bill killing the Superconducting Super Collider, which would have been the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. Congress deemed the project’s budget to be out of control.

By 2018, the JWST project had a series of technical errors in fabrication that caused the budget to grow by another $800 million, officially exceeding the congressional cap. And the launch date had slipped to 2021.

Even the name of the telescope has been a subject of controversy. In 2002, NASA’s then administrator Sean O’Keefe announced that the Next Generation Space Telescope would thereafter be called the James Webb Space Telescope. The practice of replacing generic names with the names of prominent scientists is routine. O’Keefe, however, violated two norms: His choice was essentially a unilateral decision, and that honoree was not a scientist but a fellow administrator. James E. Webb had served as NASA’s chief during its race-to-the-moon heyday, from 1961 to 1968.

Some astronomers insist on referring to the project only as “JWST” and never as “Webb.”

The JWST golden mirrors under construction

Over the next month, JWST will still have to execute nearly 350 potentially mission ending maneuvers— or “single points of failure” in NASA’s nomenclature—while prepping for scientific observations. Perhaps trickiest of all will be the deployment of the mirror—or, more accurately, mirrors: 18 hexagonal gold-coated slabs in a honeycomb arrangement. Partly so that the telescope would not be too heavy to launch, engineers chose to make the mirrors out of the relatively lightweight element beryllium, coated in gold.

The new space telescope will live at L2, on right

If all goes well, about 30 days after launch JWST will reach its final parking place: a region of space called the second Lagrange point, or L2, one of five sites in the solar system that the 19th-century mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange determined would keep in sync with Earth’s orbit. (Other astronomical projects at L2 include the Herschel and Planck space observatories.)

In the case of JWST, though, L2 has a further advantage: it is on the side of Earth directly opposite the sun, a position that reduces exposure to light and to heat — an essential concern in an instrument sensitive to infrared wavelengths. Even so, JWST will need thermal protection so that it can gradually cool down—across several months—to its operational temperature near absolute zero. Over the first week of its voyage, the telescope will unfurl a tennis-court-sized, five-layered sunshield (‘SPF one million’) to separate its delicate instruments from potential heat pollutants. On the telescope side of the shield, the temperature will approach -400 degrees F. On the other side, it may exceed 200 degrees F.

For all its advantages, L2 comes with one significant drawback: it is far from Earth, nearly one million miles, or four times the distance of the moon. HST enjoyed the benefit of human servicing missions, for instance, to fix the flaw in its mirror. That option will not be available for JWST, hence the need for everything to go perfectly.

So far so good. Much excitement ahead!

The JWST mission includes ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency) as partners.

Incredible HD footage of the JWST separating from the Ariane booster

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David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.

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