Matt Hamblen (Fierce Electronics) writes about the forthcoming launch of the Webb Space Telescope from French Guiana:
After previous short delays, NASA has confirmed the $10 billion Webb Space Telescope Launch is set for 7:20 a.m. EST on Friday, December 24.
Researchers around the globe have been anxiously awaiting the launch because the telescope and its observatory promises to offer insights into profound topics such as the origins of the universe. The telescope is a massive project that started in 2003 and represents an international partnership with NASA, European and Canadian space agencies.
NASA describes Webb as the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built to be launched into space. “The Webb telescope will simultaneously probe the physical evolution of planets within our solar system, the atmospheres or of planets in other solar systems and some of the earliest starts and galaxies to form in the universe, which is an extraordinary breadth of astrophysical areas to explore with a single launch,” said Eric Coughlin, assistant professor of physics at Syracuse University.
Coughlin said he was especially excited about detecting the very first stars or clusters of stars, which are thought to be metal-deficient and massive although little is known. Webb will also help scientists understand the formation of galaxies and whether proto-galaxies evolve by merging or through what is known as ‘direct collapse.’
Another researcher, Yao-Lun Lang, is a postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at the University of Virginia. He has been nervously watching the launch date for weeks. “I look forward to the launch while nervous about the deployment process of the telescope,” he said via email in early December after a launch date of Dec. 18 was extended to Dec. 22. More recently, the additional delay to Dec. 24 was due to a connection problem that was resolved with encapsulation of the telescope in the launch announced on Saturday, Dec. 18.
Lang will await data from the telescope toward the end of 2022, although the actual schedule is not yet available. His research group is focused on the chemical composition of ice in newborn starts. So far, they have relied on spectra from the Spitzer Space Telescope from about 15 years ago, which he described as quite noisy. “I am quite excited to see what the ice spectra turns out with Webb that has 100 times better sensitivity,” he said.
Given the insights the Hubble Telescope has provided in recent years, Lang said Webb is poised to make a magnitude greater leap than with Hubble.
NASA has undertaken an extensive effort to explain the science behind Webb including a five minute video by Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate. Webb has both cameras and spectrographs aboard that “take light apart to reveal the chemical makeup of cosmic objects,” he explained in a tweet.
The processes used to make the telescope have been applied to other fields, he says. In one example, the technology used to properly shape the mirrors in the Webb telescope is being used “right now by eye surgeons around the world,” he says. “That’s just one of the many benefits that come from a development like this.”
NASA first explained that spinoff of technology in 2019. Called the Infrared Scanning Shack Hartmann System, it was designed for precisely and quickly measuring the mirrors after grinding them. With those measurements, the technology created an imabe of the entire mirror surface for analysis, speeding up the inspection of 18 mirrors that make up the 21.3- foot primary mirror.
For the realm of LASIK eye surgery, the technique used for Webb was fine-turned into the iDESIGN system, created by Johnson & Johnson. iDESIGN makes a high-definition map of a patient’s eye to guide the surgeon’s steps.
The Webb launch will take place from the European Spaceport in French Guiana. Launch coverage starts at 6 a.m. EST on Dec. 24 at nasa.gov/live. After blasting off atop an Ariane 5 rocket, it will travel 1 million miles from Earth to orbit the Sun at location known as L2.