This new telescope can see back in time

As the launch director completed the sequence of launch, astronomers across the world waited with baited breaths the separation of the first stage booster of the Ariane-5 rocket pushing the most powerful telescope ever built into space. The launch completed a 25-year-long dream for scientists to send a telescope into space that might find answers to our origins.

The James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to the legendary Hubble Space Telescope, was launched from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on board the powerful Ariane-5 rocket to a destination nearly 15,00,000 kilometres away from its home planet. Facing the dark side of Earth, away from the Sun, the telescope will observe the early universe going as far back as the big bang itself.

The launch of the telescope came amid a small window that popped up on Christmas Day after the lift-off was postponed from a day before due to dangerously high wind that could have put it off course. However, the holiday spirit seems to be pushing the telescope forward on its way to the second Lagrange point, where it will arrive in the next 30 days.

Tarun Souradeep, senior Professor at Pune’s Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics said, “The JWST would be a revolutionary observatory and we expect India will be part of the breakthroughs that it makes in astronomy. It will also lend great support to Ligo India plans as the telescope peers back into the early universe and Ligo India looks at gravitational waves coming from that period. Science is cooperative and the telescope will work in synergy with other fields of science.”

SIX-MONTH LONG COMMISSIONING

Once the telescope reaches its intended orbit by January end, it will go through a six-month-long commissioning period. Webb’s unfolding process will begin during its month-long, million-mile journey to its operational orbit. The observatory will then gradually cool down to its cryogenic operating temperatures before we can safely operate the science instruments going down to -228 degrees Celsius.

The commission team will align all of its mirrors and calibrate its scientific instruments. In order for Webb’s primary mirror segments to act as a single optic, each of the 18 segments must be aligned to within a fraction of a wavelength of near-infrared light that is about 1/10,000th the thickness of a human hair!

A HUMAN-MADE TIME MACHINE

Developed by scientists, engineers from 14 countries of the world, the telescope required 40 million hours of work to be ready before it was locked on top of the rocket. The telescope is so sensitive that it can theoretically detect the heat coming from a bumblebee located at the distance of the Moon from Earth.

Set to be the premier observatory for the next decade, the telescope will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of other planetary systems in the universe.

“The successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope marks an important leap in the field of observational astronomy, opening up the final frontier of the cosmos,” said Dr Aayush Saxena of the University College of London, who has secured working hours with the telescope. An astronomer working to understand the formation and evolution of stars and supermassive black holes, Aayush said, “After successful deployment and commissioning which may take up to six more months, I can’t wait to see what the telescope reveals about the most distant galaxies in the universe as well as potentially habitable planets.”

Being hailed as a revolutionary force in the field of astronomy, the James Webb Telescope will provide insights into the mysterious type of planets that are larger than Earth, smaller than Neptune, and orbiting closer to their stars than Mercury orbits the Sun. As a powerful time-machine with infrared vision, the telescope will peer back over 13.5 billion years, helping astronomers compare the faintest, earliest galaxies to today’s grand spirals and ellipticals shedding light on the process of their evolution.

It will be able to see right through and into massive clouds of dust that are opaque to visible-light observatories like Hubble while exploring the mysterious atmospheres of extrasolar planets, and perhaps even find the building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe.

A MARVEL OF INNOVATION

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The development of the telescope, which first began in 1996 has required several technological developments to ensure that it leaves Earth. These technological advancements include its iconic primary mirror made of 18 separate segments that unfold and adjust to shape after launch. The telescope was so big that scientists had to develop an innovative approach of folding it to fit into the rocket fairing.

The mirrors are made of ultra-lightweight beryllium. Webb’s biggest feature is a tennis court-sized five-layer sunshield that attenuates heat from the Sun more than a million times.

According to Nasa, the telescope’s four instruments – cameras and spectrometers – have detectors that are able to record extremely faint signals. One instrument (NIRSpec) has programmable micro shutters, which enable observation of up to 100 objects simultaneously.

The telescope also has a cryocooler for cooling the mid-infrared detectors to -266 degrees Celsius.

With the separation completed from the Ariane-5 the mega telescope is on its own into the vacuum of space. All eyes now remain on the first picture that it beams back to Earth in the coming six months and usher in a new era in astronomy, changing our understanding of the universe’s forever.

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