The James Webb telescope, ready to jump into space






December 25 is a date that will be remembered in the history of science. From the Kourou Spaceport in French Guiana, an Ariane 5 rocket will take off with a valuable passenger inside: the James Webb telescope, which will be the most powerful ever launched into space. This observatory is designed to answer some of the great unresolved questions about the universe, and will make groundbreaking discoveries that will mark a new era in astronomy.

Considered the successor to the Hubble space telescope, the James Webb is the result of collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian (CSA), and will help delve deeper into the origins of the universe, as it will have the ability to capture infrared light from the youngest galaxies and the first stars. Among the many discoveries that you will be able to make, you will have the ability to show in detail how stars and planetary systems are formed, and will allow you to study both the planets of the Solar System and those that orbit other stars.

In addition, it could also help to clarify what is perhaps the greatest mystery in the universe: if there is life beyond planet Earth. Its scientific instrumentation will allow it to analyze the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, in search of biomarkers capable of revealing the presence of biological activity in them.

“The strategy of this telescope is go further than Hubble in investigating the beginning of the universe; a cosmological investigation that is essential to understand how the first galaxies were formed, how they have evolved, how dark matter works and especially how dark energy works. That is to say, very big questions, which is why it is said that this mission is comparable to the great missions in space, such as the Apollo Program, “he explains to RTVE.es Javier Armentia, astrophysicist and director of the Pamplona Planetarium.

Regarding the ability to discover the presence of life on other planets, Armentia believes that “this area of ​​astrobiology is going to be exciting, because the James Webb space telescope will be able to detect some components of the atmospheres of exoplanets, which although we cannot have images of they, yes that we can get the chemical signature of some substances that shouldn’t be there if the planet didn’t have life“. For this reason, he warns that” there will be no conclusions “, since the information provided on these possible biomarkers only” implies models “, but predicts that, in this sense,” James Webb will give us very interesting news in the next years”.


Representation of the James Webb telescope, deployed and operational at Lagrange point L2. THAT

No margin for error

The James Webb Space Telescope is one of the most complex astronomical projects in recent history. Its 14 years behind the initial launch forecast, as well as the fact that its budget has multiplied by 20 in this time (almost 10 billion dollars, compared to 500), give an idea of ​​its size. And it is not just a matter of advancing one step further on the path initiated by Hubble, the telescope that has brought so much satisfaction to science, but it is a qualitative leap compared to its predecessor.

Unlike Hubble, which orbits approximately 570 kilometers from Earth, the James Webb space telescope will be at the second Lagrange point L2 of the Sun-Earth system, 1.5 million kilometers from our planet. This means that there is no margin for error and forces planning to be pinpoint. Different missions with astronauts have been launched to repair Hubble throughout its more than 30 years of history, but that is something impossible in the case of James Webb.

Another of its main characteristics will be its 6.5 meter primary mirror, which will detect the light of stars and distant galaxies with a sensitivity one hundred times greater than that of Hubble, whose main mirror measures just 2.4 meters. In addition, the James Webb has a sunshade designed to keep its temperature a few degrees above absolute zero, necessary for infrared observation and to prevent the deterioration of scientific instruments. This parasol measures 20 meters long and 7 meters wide. One of the biggest challenges has been to get the James Webb, with its sun visor and mirror, into a 5 meter diameter launch vehicle, such as the Ariane.

This technical challenge has been described as ‘putting a ship in a bottle’, and has also been compared to origami techniques. The James Webb will launch folded inside the Ariane 5, to gradually open up once in space, during the first three weeks of the journey to its final orbit around the L2 Lagrange point, which will take about a month to arrive. An extremely delicate choreography, and in which nothing can fail, since there are more than 340 “single points of failure”, as the components whose incorrect operation causes a global failure in the system, rendering it inoperative, are called.


A scientist looks at James Webb’s primary mirror, 6.5 meters in diameter and made up of 18 segments. THAT

Lagrange L2, 1.5 million kilometers

The Lagrange point L2 is ideal because always maintains the same orientation with respect to the Earth and the Sun, so there will be no interference with the Earth, and the observations will be continuous. In addition, it is far from the heat that our planet radiates, so it offers stability and optimal conditions for the operation of a telescope that operates with infrared light. The temperature of the observatory must drop to about -230 ° C so that the infrared emission from the instruments themselves does not exceed the faint signals from the detected objects.

Webb will observe the universe at near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths. To do this, it incorporates an advanced camera and spectrograph system. This greater wave amplitude will allow you to access hidden places in the Solar System, enter the interior of the dust clouds that make up the stellar and planetary hotbeds, examine the chemical composition of the exoplanets’ atmosphere, and go even further back in time. to contemplate the first galaxies that formed in the early universe. You will be able to see objects between 100 and 200 million years after the Big Bang.

“This telescope will be able to delve a lot into places in the universe where we cannot know many things. In areas where there is more advancement and need for knowledge in astrophysics: star formation, the origin of the universe and the investigation of extrasolar planets. Although it is also our own solar system and in many objects that we know little about because they barely emit light and are dark “, Javier Armentia describes.

Shelf life of between 5 and 10 years

The new space telescope will operate for a minimum of five years, although it is planned to reach a useful life of ten years, during which it will serve scientists around the world. The Hubble telescope, which is mainly optical, was launched with the idea of ​​operating between 5 and 10 years, and it has been operating for more than three decades; although this will not be the case with the James Webb. “It has a useful life of five years, but it could possibly be tripled. In the experience of other satellites such as Iso or Iras, which are also infrared observation satellites, in the end the problem is that you do not get to keep all the detectors at low temperature, and when that is over, that’s where it will end “, says the director of the Pamplona Planetarium.

Armentia believes that the James Webb space telescope will help clarify “those great questions that make astronomy such an attractive science for humans, because they give a dimension who are we, where do we come from, if we are alone …“.” All these answers do not change our day to day, nor do they make us live better, but they do allow us to ask ourselves other questions, such as whether life is a ubiquitous or unique phenomenon on our planet, that is, if we are looking at the universe for the first time as an intelligent species what has happened in these 13.850 million years, or if, on the contrary, it is a phenomenon that can occur and is occurring in other places. It would certainly be one of the great discoveries of our civilization “, he concludes.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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