The successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is a time-traveling marvel capable of seeing back to the birth of the cosmos within a hair’s breadth. And now it’s on the verge of taking flight.
It will be the largest and most powerful astronomical observatory ever to leave the planet, with a complex architecture and a large mission. It is the most expensive and, by far, the most difficult to carry off, costing a whopping $10 billion.
The James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch on Friday after years of delay, will look for the weak, glittering light from the first stars and galaxies, affording a view into cosmic genesis. Its infrared eyes will also search for alien worlds and black holes, examining planet atmospheres for water and other possible signs of life.
“That is why it is worthwhile to take chances.” In an interview with The Associated Press, NASA’s scientific mission leader Thomas Zurbuchen said, “It’s worth the anguish and the sleepless nights.”
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson admitted that he is more concerned today than he was when the space shuttle Columbia first launched in 1986.
“There are over 300 things, and if even one of them goes wrong, it’s not going to be a pleasant day,” Nelson told the Associated Press. “As a result, everything has to operate flawlessly.”
Because the Webb telescope is so large, it had to be folded origami-style to fit into the nose cone of the European Ariane rocket for launch from the French Guiana coast in South America. The sunshade is the size of a tennis court, and the light-collecting mirror is the size of many parking places. Everything must be revealed until the spaceship is 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) away from its perch.
Sara Seager, a planet seeker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stated, “We’ve been waiting a long time for this.” “Webb will help us go forward in our quest for life, but we’ll have to be extremely lucky to uncover any evidence of life.”
The 7-ton James Webb Space Telescope, named for the man who directed NASA during the 1960s space race, is 100 times more powerful than Hubble.
Hubble, now 31 years old and still cranking out heavenly glamour photos, concentrates on visible and ultraviolet light, with a scattering of infrared light thrown in for good measure.
Webb will see things Hubble can’t since it’s an infrared or heat-sensing telescope, giving it “an altogether new viewpoint on the cosmos that will be just as awe-inspiring,” according to Nikole Lewis, deputy director of Cornell University’s Carl Sagan Institute.
Webb will aim to go back in time 13.7 billion years, only 100 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe’s first stars were formed. Scientists are curious to examine how closely these early galaxies resemble our Milky Way, if at all.
Webb will need a far larger mirror, spanning 21 feet, to beat Hubble (6.5 meters). It also requires a big canopy to shield the mirror and science instruments from the light and even reflections from the Earth and moon. The gleaming, five-layered thin shade measures 70 feet by 46 feet (21 meters by 14 meters) and is necessary for maintaining a continuous subzero temperature of roughly minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit for all four sensors (minus 240 degrees Celsius).
The most difficult component of the mission was unfolding and locking Webb’s mirror and sunshield into proper position after launch. Each of the 18 motor-driven segments of the gold-plated mirror must be painstakingly positioned so that they can concentrate as one.
NASA has never attempted a remotely controlled sequence of steps before. Many of the systems have no backup, so any of the 344 such pieces might bring the mission to a halt.
Following its launch in 1990, Hubble experienced its own setback. It wasn’t until the first fuzzy photographs from orbit that a mirror flaw was discovered. The blunder spurred a series of dangerous repairs by shuttle astronauts, who were able to restore Hubble’s vision and turn the gadget into the world’s most accomplished — and adored — telescope.
Webb will be too far away for NASA and its European and Canadian colleagues to attempt a rescue operation.
After joining NASA in 2016, 20 years after the Hubble disaster, Zurbuchen ordered a revamp of Webb to avoid a repetition of the Hubble disaster. The principal contractor is Northrop Grumman.
During a practice unfurling, the sunshield ripped. There was too much slack in the tension cords for the shade. During a vibration test, dozens of fasteners came loose. All of this resulted in increased inquiries, delays, and expenditures.
Even after Webb arrived at the South American launch location in October, issues persisted. The telescope was startled by a loose clamp. The telescope’s and rocket’s communication relays both failed.
Now comes the long-awaited liftoff, which is slated for 7:20 a.m. EST on Friday, with fewer onlookers expected due to the Christmas Eve date.
Webb will travel four times beyond the moon in a month to reach its targeted parking position. The telescope will keep pace with Earth while orbiting the sun from this gravity-balanced, fuel-efficient location, being permanently positioned on Earth’s nightside.
Webb’s infrared equipment will need another five months to freeze and test before they can get to work by the end of June.
Hubble is operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which will also monitor Webb. A minimum of five to ten years of observation is anticipated.
“I think the Webb will still exceed expectations, even with all of the excitement,” said Ori Fox of the institute, who will use Webb to examine supernovae, or burst stars. “Many of Hubble’s most amazing findings were not part of the original design,” says the author.
Christine Chen, a colleague who will focus on developing solar systems, considers serendipity “probably the most interesting component” of Webb’s work. “Astronomers can only conceive how strange and amazing the universe is.”