The Successful Beginning of the James Webb Space Telescope

Image of the James Webb Telescope (NASA, via Associated Press).

The James Webb Space Telescope (also referred to as Webb or JWST) successfully extended its 70-foot sunshield on January 4th, a critical achievement in the telescope’s deployment. 

Webb launched December 25th, 2021 at 7:20am EST from French Guiana. The mission, overseen by NASA, is an international partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). 

The 10-billion dollar telescope will extend upon the discoveries of its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. Webb is the largest and most powerful astronomical observatory launched to date.

Webb will gather data primarily from infrared wavelengths. In contrast, the Hubble Space Telescope gathered data mostly from ultraviolet and optical wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum.

By the end of January, Webb will reach its destination of 1 million miles away from Earth. It will begin to make observations by the end of June.

The Carina Nebula in visible light (left) and in infrared (left). More stars can be seen in the infrared than in the visible light. Credit: NASA/ESA/M. Livio & Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)

To Look Into the Early Universe

In order to study the most distant objects from Earth, Webb will collect light from the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. 

Nearly 13.5 billion years ago, light from the first objects formed after Big Bang began to travel to Earth. As the universe expands, these objects continue to move away from us. The further they travel, their wavelengths of light elongate and “shift” to infrared. Therefore, the greater the distance an object is from Earth, the greater its “redshift”. Through observing in the infrared, Webb will detect these objects from the early universe as they continue to travel further away from us. 

You likely observe a variation of redshift with sound waves. For example, sound waves stretch when a fire truck drives away from you with the sirens on. The sound becomes quieter with greater distance because the sound wavelengths become longer. Just like the firetruck, these distant objects are also traveling away with longer wavelengths of light as the distance increases. 

To Better Understand Distant Worlds

Webb will study exoplanets, planets that orbit other stars. Specifically, Webb will focus on planets thought to orbit within a star’s habitable zone, the orbital region where liquid water is most likely to be found on an exoplanet. A technique called transmission spectroscopy will allow Webb to examine starlight filtered through an exoplanet’s atmosphere to best determine its chemical composition. These chemical measurements will best determine whether a planet could foster the organic compounds necessary for life.

The JWST will embark on many missions, but these are some of its primary objectives.

Keep looking up,

Julia

 

Sources: NASA

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