James Webb Update

My fingers might be stuck. They have been crossed since Christmas day, the day the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) took a ride. That ride, inside an Ariane 5 rocket went smoothly and JWST was on its way to a point nearly a million miles from Earth.

Why were my fingers crossed? During the journey to its solar orbit, JWST had to perform numerous mission critical operations. If any of the 29 critical operations failed, well, how do you say goodbye to $9.7 billion? To say the least, mine were not the only fingers crossed! And breath held!

OK, beath again, JWST has completed the mission critical operations of most concern, like deploying a tennis court size, 5-layer Sun shield, solar panel, and putting the optics together. Yes, the optics were in 3 sections, one main and two folded behind the main. Why the complicated arrangement? JWST is a big, a very big telescope. At 6.5 meters (21 feet) in diameter, the mirror is too big to fit inside a current rocket, so it had to be folded for launch and unfolded after launch. That scared me. Anyway, it’s done, and the telescope is whole.

There are other critical milestones to make, such as getting the giant mirror collimated, attaining its planned orbit around the Sun (about a million miles farther away than Earth), and functioning subsystems. But the hairiest ones are done, and mirror collimation is in progress as I write this. About 30 days from launch JWST will reach its solar orbit location, called L2 (Lagrange 2), an area where the Sun and Earth’s gravity produce an equilibrium. Ideally, JWST will hang out at L2 with minimal energy needed to stay there. It will use its energy to shoot the universe with a huge infrared eye.

Once it’s nestled at L2 and has been given the go-ahead, JWST will astound!

The JWST program was started in 1996 with a $500 million dollar budget and expected launch in 2007.  Aggressive development and science targets understandably affected its progress, but this is not unlike the great Hubble Space Telescope.  Hubble started as a $300 million dollar project and ended up costing around $9 billion, when servicing missions and new instrument installations, via the Space Shuttle program, are considered.  Space scientists will soon be the recipients of many advances since 1996.

JWST will study the infrared universe, going beyond Hubble, and the decommissioned Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope.

JWST will be able to detect that which is invisible to Hubble. Things like the earliest galaxies. They are being pulled away so fast by the universe’s expansion their light is red shifted into the infrared. Mostly invisible to Hubble, they will be clear in JWST’s big eye. Things like colder objects such as exo-planets and their atmospheres, brown dwarfs, and stellar debris disks.

What’s in the Sky?

January 29; before sunrise; southeast: A waning crescent Moon, Mars, and Venus make a pretty grouping