March 2, 2024
Ilustração artística do Telescópio Espacial James Webb

The James Webb Space Telescope should usher in a new and golden era

Recent tests on the James Webb Space Telescope have been successfully completed. After years of waiting, everything is now ready to be put into orbit. a tool that should revolutionize astronomy and usher in a new golden age for telescopes space.

James Webb is the most powerful space telescope ever built. Designed over 30 years ago to be a successor Hubble, which shows a significant increase in Infrared accuracy and sensitivity compared to its predecessor.

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Its main mirror consists of 18 hexagonal cells that together form a large gold mirror with a diameter of 6 and a half meters, a gathering area about 6 times larger than the Hubble mirror.

Large-scale comparison of the James Webb (left) and Hubble (right) telescopes
Comparison of the James Webb (left) and Hubble (right) telescopes. Credits: GSFC

Unlike Hubble, James Webb optics does not favor observing visible light. Although it does see a bit of orange and red, it was designed to work in infrared. That is why the mirrors are gold-plated, because gold better reflects the infrared spectrum.

In the infrared, James Webb will be able to see star formation within dust clouds, analyze the composition of the atmospheres of exoplanets, observe space deeper than Hubble, and record the formation of the first galaxies in the universe, just a few million years after the Big Bang. .

Hubble Record the Carinae Nebula.  On the left, in the visible spectrum and on the right, in the infrared, where you can see stars forming behind dust clouds
Hubble Record the Carinae Nebula. On the left, in the visible spectrum and on the right, in the infrared, where you can see stars forming behind clouds of dust. Credits: NASA/HST

But to make observations in the infrared spectrum, the James Webb Space Telescope will need to operate at temperatures below -220 degrees Celsius. Otherwise, the heat of the telescope may exhaust your instruments. So, in addition to the powerful cooling system, it will also have a 5-layer solar shield, the size of a tennis court, designed to block light and heat from the sun, Earth and Moon.

Components of the James Webb Space Telescope
Components of the James Webb Space Telescope. Source: NASA

This will only be possible because James Webb will be operating near the point Lagrange L2, which is about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, in the direction opposite to the Sun. Point L2 is a stable region of space, where the gravitational pull of the Sun and Earth allows any body to remain in the orbit of the Sun in a geosynchronous position. In this mode, your shield is able to protect the telescope from light and heat from the Sun, Earth, and Moon at the same time, since they are both in roughly the same direction.

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The only problem is that in this area of ​​the space there are no workshops nearby and you can’t even pull out equipment if it needs any maintenance. That’s why James Webb is built with strict quality control and his systems are tested to exhaustion. Recent tests have been successfully completed in California, and they are now ready to be sent into space.

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It will be launched from the base in Kourou, French Guiana, in an Ariane 5 rocket, considered one of the most reliable launch vehicles. If all goes well at launch, James Webb will embark on a two-week trip to Lagrange Point L2. Along this path, he will be carefully deployed, and before beginning his scientific operations, his optics will be aligned and instrumentation calibrated, which should take a few more months.

Publishing the James Webb Space Telescope
James Webb Space Telescope published. Source: NASA

Since 1997, the space telescope project has undergone major revisions, its launch has been delayed by 14 years and its budget has gone from 500 million to more than $10 billion. But it looks like it will be worth every day of waiting and every extra dollar invested in James Webb, humanity’s most powerful space telescope.

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