The James Webb Space Telescope: Changing Our Understanding of Space
On Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2021, at 7:20 a.m. EST, the James Webb Space Telescope was flawlessly launched from the ESA’s Kourou Space Center in French Guiana. NASA tweeted: “the beginning of a new, exciting decade of science climbed to the sky. Webb’s mission to #UnfoldTheUniverse will change our understanding of space as we know it.”
The director general of ESA, Josef Aschbacher, commented that “We have delivered a Christmas gift to humanity. With this telescope we are enabling new science.” Indeed, the building and crafting of the project involved over 10,000 people from over 14 countries, working together more than 25 years.
Using optics that can see in the infrared spectrum, this “gift” to humanity will examine every aspect of our cosmos history, including a look at first galaxies formed 13.5 billion years ago, as well as the atmospheres of exoplanets, and hopefully answer questions about how planets formed and evolved. It also will observe the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) telescope is “unequaled in size and complexity,” the Indian web daily NDTV reports. To give the reader a sense of its magnification power, “#JWST can see the heat signature of a bumblebee in the distance of the moon,” Dr. John Mather Senior Project Scientist on the project, tweeted.
During the following “29 days on edge” the Webb will perform a series of complex tasks to ready itself for gazing into the deep space of our Universe. By Jan. 1, the telescope had completed the highly complex procedure of unfurling its sunshield, which is the size of a tennis court. Once all the readying tasks are done, which is scheduled for one month after launch, Webb will fire its thruster to travel to its destination, some 1.6 million km from Earth.
Reflecting the continuity of man’s role in developing the Universe, the Webb telescope’s destination is what is known as the Lagrange 2 point. Its new home is so named after Italian-French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, who in 1772 discovered five unique points of equilibrium between the forces of gravity of the Sun, Earth and the Moon. This L2 point will allow for the Webb to remain in an orbit with Earth, the Sun and the Moon on the same side as its solar shield while being close enough to Earth for communications. Webb project scientist Klaus Pontoppidan pointed to the lasting import of this “gift” when he said, “Webb will probably also reveal new questions for future generations of scientists to answer, some of whom may not even be born yet.”