This is the telescope that will change the way we see the universe

  • The ‘James Webb’ space telescope will study the formation of the first stars, look through cosmic dust and look for signs of life on other planets

  • Its takeoff has been postponed to December 25, although the final date will depend on the weather.

The image we have of the universe around us could be about to change. The largest and most powerful instrument ever built, the ‘James Webb’ space telescope is about to set off on its space odyssey to study the light of the first stars, investigate what lies beyond the clouds of cosmic dust and look for signs of life on other planets. After more than three decades of research and 10 billion dollars invested, the launch of this historic mission has been postponed, again, to “not before December 25”. If the weather conditions are good, then, ‘Webb’ will take off just for Christmas morning. Or for Newton’s day, depending on how you look at it.

Expectations for this mission are high. And not just because this telescope has been specifically designed to go further than the already famous ‘Hubble’, whose observations have revealed everything from the existence of black holes to spectacular images of the galaxies that surround us. The launch of ‘Webb’ will involve the deployment of largest and most sophisticated space telescope ever built for humanity. The instrument will have a 6.5 meter diameter mirror, divided into 18 individual gold-coated mirrors. This represents a deployment almost three times larger than the missions launched to date and up to 100 times more sensitive than what we had until now. “This telescope will show us the universe as we have never seen it before,” explains astrophysicist Begoña Vila in an interview with EL PERIÓDICO.

And is that ‘Webb’, unlike its predecessors, has been designed to look at the universe through infrared radiation. That is, to see beyond what the human eye would capture. From what we would see with the naked eye. “This will also allow us look back in time for the light of the first stars and galaxies of the universe “, explains Macarena García Marín, scientist of the operations team of this mission.” We are in an expanding universe where the light of the first stars reaches us as a weak infrared radiation. Looking for these signs is, in a way, like having a time machine to understand what happened during the early stages of the universe “, illustrates the expert.

A spatial choreography

The lift-off of the ‘James Webb’ space telescope, defined as “the most important mission of this generation”, It is the result of a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The project started in the eighties, just after the launch of ‘Hubble’, with a $ 500 million initial budget and a launch forecast for 2007. The design of this mission has survived countless technical contingencies, redesigns and controversies that, finally, have multiplied the budget by twenty and have delayed its take-off by almost fifteen years.

It is planned that, after overcoming his earthly odyssey, telescope head to space aboard European rocket Ariane 5, which will take off from the Kurú spaceport, in French Guiana. The instrument will leave its mother planet carefully folded, like an origami, and stored inside the space vehicle specifically designed for this purpose. ‘Webb’ will be ‘released’ into space when the rocket reaches about 120 kilometers high. From then on, the telescope will start “six months of complex and meticulous choreography rehearsed for years for the deployment of this instrument “, relates García Marín.

The deployment of this sophisticated space telescope has been patterned down to the smallest detail. As explained by the mission engineers, In the first month of the mission, a large part of the technical deployments will take place. ‘Webb’ will begin to open its parasols between days 3 and 4 of its space trip, just during its passage by the Moon. Then, over the next several weeks, you will begin to unfold and align your mirrors. The first ‘official’ photo of the mission it is expected in three or four weeks. Afterwards, it is estimated that it will take three more months to calibrate the scientific instruments on board. “The first observations will be a technical sample of everything that this telescope can do”, explains Vila.

In search of alien life

‘Webb’ it will orbit at a distance of 1.5 million kilometers from its mother planet. That is, about four times the distance between the Moon and the Earth. From this strategic enclave, the telescope will be able to observe unexplored corners of the cosmos. Of course, in case of failure the location of this instrument will also be your sentence. “Hubble was designed so that, if necessary, it could be repaired by astronauts. But not ‘Webb’. In the position where it will be, there would be no way to fix it,” says García Marín. Of course, the scientist clarifies, “the systems have redundancies. If side A does not work, it goes to B”.

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The lifespan of this mission is about 10 years. During this time, the telescope will carry out an exhaustive list of tasks ruled, down to the smallest detail, by scientists from all over the world. In his first year of flight, ‘Webb ‘will spend about 25% of his time observing exoplanets. In total, it is estimated that between 60 and 70 of these celestial bodies will be studied. “‘Webb’ will be the first to look directly at these potential worlds to see how many meet the conditions to host life as we know it“explains Vila. If there is life beyond Earth, then this telescope will be the best tool available to humanity right now to find it.

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