The most important launch in over a decade won’t carry an astronaut
SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) - On Christmas Eve an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana will launch carrying a very special payload. Aboard this rocket will be the James Webb Space Telescope, the most complex and expensive telescope ever sent into space. This telescope, literally decades in the making, will help humanity look farther into the past than anytime in history, right after stars and galaxies started forming just a few tens of millions of years after the Big Bang.
The JWST started development right after the launch of the Hubble Telescope in 1990. JWST has seen numerous overalls, delays, and cost overruns over the past 30 years, and in fact was cancelled for a short period of time in 2011 before funding was reinstated. In total, this telescope when launched, will have cost the tax payers over 10 billion dollars. So what are we getting for all of this money? Well, some really cool science.
It starts with how the telescope will collect light. The reason the JWST will be able to look so far into the past is the fact that it will primarily capture light in the near-infrared & infrared spectrum. This is light that has been red shifted out of the visible spectrum as it has moved away from us. Using the longer wavelength light the JWST will allow scientists to peer back in time further back in time than at any point in history. In addition to looking back in time JWST will allow scientists to more intricately study stars and exoplanets and will allow us for the first time determine what kind of gas makeup the atmospheres of these exoplanets may have.
What will allow the JWST to see what has previously unseen is also what makes this such a complicated and risky launch. Unlike the Hubble, JWST will orbit much farther away than 340 mile altitude in Low Earth Orbit Hubble does. Infrared light is much more sensitive than visible light, and order for it to operate optimally JWST will orbit much farther away from Earth. In fact, the telescope will orbit four times the distance to the moon almost a million miles away from Earth. At what is called the Lagrange L2 point it won’t orbit the Earth technically, but actually the sun. Without doing so infrared light would overwhelm the telescope. This will allow the JWST to avoid the shadow of both the Earth and the Moon and help the five sunshields keep the telescope colder than -370 degrees Fahrenheit, with the telescope getting as cold as -447 Fahrenheit thanks to a cryocooler system.
But with this design lies a very risky gamble, there’s no hope for repair. Everything with the JWST must work perfectly once it is off world because unlike the Hubble when it was able to be repaired this will not be possible with JWST as it will orbit far too far away. This is one the big reasons the launch has been delayed so many times at it has been tested over and over again making any issues have been ironed out on the ground before launching. Once it is in space it must get to the perfect spot and then each of its sun shields must open perfectly in order for it to work the way scientists and NASA want it to. The most important aspect of the launch will be this unveiling of each of the five sunshields that will help keep the telescope cool.
So I hope you will tune into the livestream this Friday and watch as the entire astronomy world will watch with faded breathe as the most important and expensive telescope ever launched will strapped on top of a rocket and shot into space at 7:20 a.m. EST.
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