Science & Technology

High cost, high risk, high hopes: There’s a lot riding on the $10B James Webb Space Telescope’s launch

The launch of NASA’s $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope from French Guiana may mark a triumph in a story that 1000’s of astronomers have been following for a era. Or it may lead to the deepest tragedy.

Both means, the climax is because of unfold starting on Christmas morning — making for a plot worthy of a vacation film.

“I’ve been ready 23 years for this telescope to launch,” College of Washington astronomer Eric Agol informed GeekWire.

Agol has been ready so lengthy that the focus of his analysis modified utterly throughout the wait. Again in 1998, when the Next-Generation Space Telescope was nonetheless on the drawing boards, he was learning gravitationally lensed quasars.

“I used to be doing a little science at the time with ground-based telescopes and, and particularly the Keck Telescope up in Hawaii,” Agol stated. “We had been spending half a night time taking a look at distant quasars, after which we calculated that with the James Webb Space Telescope, it will take a few milliseconds to do the identical commentary.”

Now he’s learning planets past our personal photo voltaic system — with an intense focus on TRAPPIST-1, a probably liveable planetary system 39 light-years from Earth. It’s a testomony to the telescope’s versatility that it guarantees to have simply as dramatic impact on that mission.

“James Webb is simply going to present phenomenal knowledge on this technique of transiting planets,” Agol stated. “Every of the transits will yield spectral data if there are any indicators of atmospheres in these planets. That is the first time the place we’ve got a actually good probability of probing atmospheres on probably Earthlike planets.”

However first, the telescope has to get settled at its location in deep house, a million miles from Earth, at a gravitational stability level generally known as Sun-Earth L2.

The Christmas launch is the first step: Underneath an association cast by NASA and the European Space Company, JWST will elevate off from ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana atop a European Ariane 5 rocket. After a collection of postponements resulting from technical considerations and climate, launch is ready for no sooner than 9:20 a.m. native time (4:20 a.m. PT) Dec. 25 — complicating vacation plans for astronomers round the globe.

“They need to, like, schedule their children’ pancakes and presents in order that their children have a good Christmas, but additionally they should watch James Webb deploy,” UW astronomer Emily Levesque stated.

NASA is because of start its streaming coverage at 3 a.m. PT Christmas morning.

This launch is nothing to joke about: It’s coming after years of delay and billions of {dollars} in value overruns. (When I wrote about JWST in 2007, the value of what’s now a $10 billion observatory was estimated at $3.5 billion, with launch slated for 2013.)

Due to the place the telescope goes, it will probably’t be serviced by a crew of astronauts after it’s launched. That’s completely different from the Hubble Space Telescope — which needed to undergo a major repair by a space shuttle team three years after deployment, resulting from a flaw in its mirror.

As a result of JWST’s mirror is so large — 6.5 meters, or 21.3 toes — it must be folded up origami-style to suit inside the Ariane 5’s fairing. Meaning the mirror, and the multilayered display screen that protects the telescope’s delicate devices from the solar’s glare, need to unfold after launch. The spacecraft could be reprogrammed in flight if one thing goes fallacious with the software program, but when JWST experiences a {hardware} drawback, there’s a probability the complete mission could possibly be misplaced.

“If anyone can do that, NASA can,” Levesque stated. “It’s an unbelievably sophisticated launch and deployment. There are such a lot of steps that need to go completely. They’ve additionally spent years attempting to make all the pieces as excellent as potential. I feel I’ll be biting my nails with everybody else, and nothing about a house launch or a mission of this complexity is ever routine, but when anyone can get it to work, it’s NASA.”

The drama is because of unfold, so to talk, over the course of a number of weeks. The final date that Levesque has marked on her calendar to fret about is in late January, when JWST is scheduled to reach at the L2 level.

As a result of the gravitational pulls from Earth and the solar are aligned at that time, the spacecraft would require a minimal of thruster firings to stay in a secure location inside Earth’s shadow. However it’ll take one other few months to get the telescope commissioned for first gentle and full-scale science operations.

For greater than a decade, NASA has been speaking up the James Webb Space Telescope as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has managed to last more than 30 years.

Like Hubble, JWST’s devices are designed to make discoveries throughout the spectrum of astronomy — starting from the worlds and mini-worlds in our own solar system to alien planets circling distant stars, from the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy to the edge of the observable universe.

The Webb telescope’s 18-segment mirror has almost seven times the light-gathering capability of Hubble’s mirror, and a considerably wider area of view. However Webb is completely different from Hubble in a much more elementary means: It’s designed to see the universe in infrared gentle, reasonably than Hubble’s wider vary of ultraviolet, visible-light and infrared wavelengths.

Meaning the photos launched to the public usually tend to be color-coded to replicate variations in the infrared spectrum, simply as pictures from the Spitzer Space Telescope have been. Infrared telescopes are particularly fitted to peering by way of shrouds of obscuring mud to see what’s going on inside protoplanetary disks, or mapping cosmological frontiers affected by relativistic redshifting.

Levesque expects JWST’s infrared readings to contribute to her personal analysis, which focuses on how the largest stars in the universe evolve and die.

“A few of the dying huge stars that I research, purple supergiants, are literally fascinating to review in infrared gentle,” she stated.

One instance is the star Betelgeuse, which generated headlines a couple of years in the past when it went by way of a mysterious cycle of dimming and brightening. Astronomers finally decided that the dimming was in all probability brought on by a cloud of dust.

“If James Webb had been in a position to observe Betelgeuse when that occurred, it will’ve seen one thing very completely different, as a result of that very same mud that blocks the gentle we see with our eyes really glows and offers off a fairly good quantity of infrared gentle,” Levesque stated. “It’ll be a wholly new means of taking a look at these stars that we’ve by no means been in a position to handle earlier than, as a result of we will’t get these varieties of observations from the floor.”

However the discoveries that Levesque is most wanting ahead to, assuming JWST survives its journey to L2, are the discoveries that astronomers don’t count on.

“There’s this well-known Hubble commentary, the Hubble Deep Discipline, the place they pointed Hubble at what seemed like an empty patch of sky, and so they simply let it take a very lengthy image,” she stated. “And when the image got here again, it was simply wall-to-wall distant galaxies. It was this gorgeous image of what the distant universe appears like. And it stunned everyone, simply how unimaginable the image was. I can’t wait to see what the James Webb equal might be.”

Listening to Levesque speak about what Webb would possibly carry, you may’t assist considering of a child ready for Santa Claus.

“I’m excited for Christmas,” she stated.

UW astronomer Emily Levesque is planning a collection of in-person and digital occasions to rejoice the launch of the paperback version of “The Last Stargazers,” her behind-the-scenes take a look at the individuals who use the world’s strongest telescopes. The primary occasion might be at Ada’s Technical Books in Seattle on Jan. 4. There’ll even be a digital occasion introduced by Third Place Books on Jan. 5, and a Jan. 21 occasion at Paper Boat Booksellers.

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