NASA’s massive James Webb space telescope is a month away from launch

The long-awaited launch of NASA’s generational observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, is just a month away.

The $ 9.8 billion Webb has weathered years of technical delays, funding problems and a pandemic to reach launch day in French Guiana, which is scheduled for no earlier than Dec. 18.

Webb will have an ambitious scientific agenda that will range from studying small worlds in our solar system to surveying the far reaches of the universe. “We’re going to look at everything in the universe that we can see,” Webb’s senior project scientist John Mather told reporters at a news conference on Wednesday (November 18).

Related: Building the James Webb Space Telescope (Photos)

“We want to know, how did we get here?” added Mather, who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “The Big Bang, how does it work? We will look, yes, and we have predictions. But we honestly don’t know [how]. “

As the successor to NASA’s venerable Hubble Space Telescope, Webb will travel to a distant destination about 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth known as the Lagrange point, a gravitationally stable place between two celestial bodies.

It will take Webb a month to get there after launch. The observatory will then endure a six-month commissioning period that will include a variety of key milestones, from deploying its complex mirror to ensuring all instruments are working properly, before Webb opens his eyes.

“At six and a half meters [21 feet], the primary mirror was too big to fit on a rocket, so we designed it to be deployed in space, “said Lee Feinberg, elements manager for the Webb Optical Telescope at Goddard, during today’s briefing. Flip-up blades, so … we needed mirrors that had to be in segments. “

The mirrors, Feinberg added, initially act like 18 separate telescopes, and it will take several months for algorithms to align them correctly, accurate to about 5,000 of the diameter of a human hair. And that’s assuming the telescope displays them all correctly, which (despite years of testing and modeling) NASA has said is one of the biggest technical hurdles Webb will face.

The Webb researchers are coy about what the telescope will focus on first once it’s ready. But the clues come from the list of “early launch science programs” that will prioritize Webb’s core science in the study of planets, the solar system, galaxies, black holes, stellar physics and star populations.

The first images will be in high demand, as mission scientists say the resolution will be 100 times better than Hubble’s and reveal much more at infrared (or heat) wavelengths than the old telescope.

While the first targets have yet to be decided, Webb will soon turn back the clock on observations of the universe, providing a glimpse of the cosmos as it was just 100 million years after the Big Bang. Hubble has allowed scientists to look back 400 million years after the Big Bang, so Webb will fill a gap, Mather said.

Canada is providing a fine guide sensor to target Webb, along with a spectrograph to examine exoplanets and galaxies. The nation receives a guaranteed 5% share of the observing time for your contribution.

“A Canadian team will focus its studies on the atmospheres of exoplanets to determine their compositions and temperatures. Another Canadian team will study some of the first galaxies formed and galaxies gathered in dense neighborhoods called clusters,” said Sarah Gallagher, Advisor to the President of the the Canadian Space Agency.

What excites scientists most is the unpredictability of what Webb will reveal, and even a brief look at Hubble’s history provides many examples. At the Hubble launch in April 1990, no one knew of the existence of dark energy, a fundamental influence on cosmic expansion. The exoplanets had not been confirmed yet either, and yet today we know of thousands.

Hubble even found some surprises closer to home, like when it helped NASA’s New Horizons Pluto probe correctly steer around some new discoveries. “Hubble discovered two new moons of Pluto that could help the New Horizons probe [navigate] the physics of that world a few years ago, “said Klaus Pontoppidan, a Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.” We believe that Webb would be no different in that regard. “

While launch day is always expected to induce butterflies, Greg Robinson, NASA’s Webb program director, said he’s confident the team will push through to make these scientific discoveries a reality.

“We test as much as possible, the most practical. We call it a test while you fly,” he said. “We test the same way it’s going to work, based on a launch. And so we’ve done all of that, and I think we’re in really good shape.”

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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