It’s finally here, space cadets. After numerous delays, cost overruns, and a major redesign, the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch Dec. 22 atop a European-made Ariane 5 rocket. Space nerds like me have been salivating over this for years, but not everyone is so inclined; let’s therefore give a bit of background into this next-generation astronomical and astrophysical flagship mission, a combined effort of NASA and the European and Canadian Space Agencies.
While the Hubble Space Telescope, after three decades of mind-blowing data gathering, continues to perform its Earth-orbit mission admirably and is expected to do so for another decade or two, there are many celestial objects its mostly visible-light capacities simply can’t see. JWST was created specifically to image objects in the deeper band of infrared light, which can’t be done effectively from Earth’s surface or anywhere in the planet’s vicinity.
To escape blinding local sources of infrared light and heat and open its view to the universe, as well as to keep the observatory intensely cold for the sake of further infrared dampening, JWST’s trajectory will take it to a Lagrange point in space roughly one million miles away where it will maintain a stable though relatively far-flung orbit.
This has been done before to excellent effect, though an orbital distance more than four times greater than that of our moon doesn’t lend itself to on-site astronaut repair missions as have been done with Hubble. For the mission to succeed, everything must be absolutely perfect when it goes up, hence the many delays. While its construction was completed in 2016, JWST has undergone five years of ground testing to ensure the mission goes off without a hitch.
JWST is so big when fully deployed, it’s designed to fold up like an origami bird in its launch vehicle payload space. Several months of travel, deployment, and instrument calibration will be required before the real data starts pouring in. Summer 2022 should see the first images as JWST begins its mission in earnest.
The objects JWST will be imaging range from exoplanets, or planets in other star systems at distances anywhere from our nearest neighbors to those detected thousands of lightyears away, to the almost unimaginably old and remote first stars and galaxies formed when our 13.8 billion-year-old universe was young.
The imaging resolution of exoplanets is expected to be ten times greater than anything we’ve yet accomplished, yielding data about these planets’ atmospheres indicating their habitability. As far as extremely distant (and therefore extremely old, since such enormous distances are a function of time) galaxies, stars, and burgeoning planetary systems, JWST’s imaging resolution is expected to yield data ranging anywhere between 100 and 1,000 times anything previously achieved.
Such a tremendous leap in data-gathering magnitude over all other telescopes of any stripe means no one is exactly sure what we’ll discover beyond existing expectations, but JWST seems destined to eclipse Hubble, both scientifically and culturally, as our eyes to the sky. Here’s to the future, and hope. Always.