At this time, a device of technology that has cost some 9,000 million euros and countless hours of work of thousands of scientists during the last quarter of a century rests on the tip of a rocket loaded with tens of tons of highly explosive fuel in the air. European spaceport of French Guiana. After several delays due to technical issues and bad weather, the Space Telescope James Webb, the largest scientific instrument that has ever been launched into space, is scheduled to take off for Saturday 25 from 1:20 p.m., Spanish peninsular time.
The James Webb will be the successor to the space telescope Hubble, which started its useful life on the wrong foot. Its vision systems were malfunctioning and astronauts had to be sent into space to repair it. Everything ended up being solved and the Hubble forever changed our view of the universe. It showed us places in the universe that had never been reached before, with galaxies that were born about 13 billion years ago. Although it was designed before planets were known to exist around other stars beyond the Sun – exoplanets – the lens of the Hubble they were able to observe these worlds and even distinguish their atmospheres.
The James Webb will see much further in time and space than the Hubble. If all goes well, you will be able to see the first light in the universe that was emitted by the first groups of stars grouped together in the first galaxies about 13.7 billion years ago. This is just 100 million years after the origin of the universe after the Big Bang, a region of the cosmos that has never been explored and where nature probably has some surprises in store for us, as the American Nobel Prize in physics John Mather has explained to EL PAÍS , one of the scientific fathers of the Webb.
The level of nervousness of all the people involved in this great scientific endeavor is higher than with previous releases, because everything has to be perfect: there is no possibility of going to repair the Webb if something fails; it will simply be too far to send astronauts.
“I am excited because I see the start of scientific operations very close,” explains Santiago Arribas, an astronomer at the Center for Astrobiology (CAB) who has been involved in the project since the late 1990s. He is currently the principal investigator of the Spanish participation in Nirspec, one of the four scientific instruments of the Webb, which has been developed by the European Space Agency (ESA).
“The instrument is capable of registering the light of up to 200 galaxies at a time. This will allow to obtain samples of many galaxies in different cosmic epochs “
The James Webb will be the successor to the space telescope Hubble. One of its advantages will be the ability to do “infrared spectrography”. “This allows infrared light to be broken down, in a similar way to how visible light disperses into colors when passing through a prism,” Arribas explains. “By analyzing this light we will be able to obtain the chemical composition of the object we are looking at, its physical properties, and also how it is moving. Nirspec will detect very, very weak light signals from very distant objects. It will take us to a primeval epoch of the universe, when the first galaxies were formed ”, highlights the astronomer.
“The instrument is also capable of recording light from up to 200 galaxies at a time. This will allow to obtain samples of many galaxies in different cosmic epochs and to know how they have transformed to what they are today ”, points out Arribas.
It is thought that the first galaxies could have been lumps of information very affected by the violent explosions that the first stars produced when they died. Later they calmed down and, in some cases, ordered until they had a spectacular spiral structure like that of the Milky Way. We, the Earth and the rest of the planets of the solar system, are on the inner face of Orion, one of the arms of the spiral.
“This telescope is going to change our view of exoplanets from a physical and chemical point of view”
The James Webb It will be the first space telescope capable of studying in detail planets that orbit stars beyond the Sun and tell us if they contain water, methane, carbon dioxide and other compounds that could uncover the possibility of life. “This telescope is going to change our vision of exoplanets from a physical and chemical point of view,” explains David Barrado, principal investigator of the Miri instrument at the Institute of Aerospace Technology, an organization that has played a leading role in the construction of the instrument together to the CAB, both in Madrid.
In its first years of operation the Webb it will focus “on a few dozen exoplanets,” explains Barrado. Among them is Trappist’s solar system, a star 40 light-years away. This distance is negligible in cosmological terms, but unaffordable for human space probes. To achieve it, you would have to travel for 40 years at the speed of light, something unthinkable with current technology.
In 2017, Trappist was discovered to host seven rocky planets like Earth. In its first year of operation, Barrado participates in a program to observe in detail two of these planets, the b and the e. From the first they hope to capture direct light. It is possible that this world similar in size to Earth is more like hell Venus than our planet.
Trappist e is more interesting to find signs of life. It is in the right zone around its star to hold liquid water. If its atmosphere has greenhouse gases, it could have surface temperatures similar to Earth’s. “We have no idea what we are going to see on these planets,” explains Barrado. “So far there are only assumptions about the chemical composition. The James Webb it will be able to tell us what it is made of with high precision ”, he highlights. The same will happen with other exoplanets of which until now we have only known “brushstrokes”, adds the scientist.
After today’s takeoff, the Webb will perform the most complex deployment sequence in history, according to NASA. The US space agency is the main promoter of this project, in which ESA and Canada are also participating. There are about 300 operations that could go wrong ruining the mission. The entire deployment of this huge observatory is scheduled and will be done automatically without the people in charge of the mission control center being able to intervene.
If all goes well, the Ariane 5 rocket will propel the telescope for eight minutes to allow it to escape Earth’s force of gravity and into space. Half an hour after takeoff, the telescope will deploy its communication antenna with Earth and its solar panels, which will allow it to stop feeding on its electric battery, not very different from the one used by a car.
This telescope is like a huge robotic butterfly that will unfold as it travels towards its destination, at Lagrange 2, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. During the first days of travel, the parasol supports will be opened, which is the size of a tennis court and which must guarantee that on the shady side the telescope can reach 233 degrees below zero. This is essential for the primary mirror to function properly: an eye made of 18 hexagonal plates with a total diameter of six and a half meters, the largest ever launched into space. It is so large that it is folded over on itself. The opening maneuvers will begin in 13 days. Once its destination is reached, the telescope will spend several months testing all of its instruments and circuits. The first scientific observations are expected next summer.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.