After last week’s pre-launch nail biter with the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers and cosmology researchers around the globe are breathing a sigh of relief.
The telescope observatory has been under development for 18 years and represents an enormous set of research opportunities as long as it gets launched and moved into position in the coming year.
According to NASA on Nov. 22, technicians were attaching Webb to a launch vehicle adapter to place it atop the Ariane 5 rocket when a clamp band suddenly released, unplanned.
The clamp band release caused a vibration throughout the telescope observatory, leading to an investigation and a launch delay to no earlier than Dec. 22, four days later than the original launch date of Dec. 18. The problem occurred at a launch prep facility in Kourou, French Guiana.
On Nov. 24, NASA declared that no observatory components were damaged and gave approval to begin fueling operations that were expected to last 10 days.
The Webb Space Telescope has been in development since 2003 and is an international partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. Its mission is among the most ambitious ever conceived for researchers, including a telescopic exploration of every phase of cosmic history from our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe. As NASA puts it, Webb will “help humanity understand the origins of the universe and our place in it.” Webb is the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built to be launched in space.
For Dr. Yao-Lun Yang, an astronomy post doctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, Webb represents the opportunity for deep research into fundamentals such as the “chemical heritage” of Earth and other celestial bodies. Webb will help scientists better understand something as complex as how a star is made, he said in a Nov. 18 public webcast sponsored by Massanutten Regional Library in Harrisonburg, Va.
With Webb, he said, “we’ll be able to see a lot more molecules” on distant stars detected through the infrared light their dust emits. Part of the reason for such detail is that Webb is so much larger than the Hubble telescope, reaching about 6 meters across as compared to Hubble’s 2.4 meters.
Yang will have to wait up to a year to take begin to take advantage of Webb’s technical capabilities since it will be launched to a location called L2 in space, a million miles from Earth, and will take time for testing and set up. He has previously studied star dust and noted the value of the Herschel Space Observatory in opening up research in the far-infrared universe to allow scientists to probe into deeply embedded protostars.
NASA recently said Webb will be used, among other things, to study “sub-Neptunes” in the galaxy. There are hundreds of these planets that orbit close to stars, but researchers still don’t know fundamentals about their density. One question is why they appear to orbit around other stars but not the sun in our own solar system.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has released a media reel of animations showing the launch and deployment of the telescope as it unfolds in space.