The next step for space telescopes, the James Webb Space Telescope will make incredible discoveries that are sure to change our understanding of the Universe. But what exactly is it looking for?
James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, is the next generation of space based telescope for NASA and is intended to take the mantle of flagship telescope after the Hubble Space Telescope. JWST was successfully launched on the 25th of December 2021, and reached its destination orbit just under a month later on the 24th of January 2022. The JWST is designed to image the Universe in infrared light, a less energetic type of light than the visual spectrum we see the Universe in. JWST will be over 100 times more sensitive to infra-red light, allowing it to see fainter objects in greater detail, from the interiors of vast nebulae to the formation of the first galaxies.
As of March 2022, the JWST has four primary mission goals:
1. To search for light from the first stars and galaxies that formed in the Universe after the Big Bang
2. To study galaxy formation and evolution
3. To understand star formation and planet formation
4. To study planetary systems and the origins of life
The Mission So Far
The first thirteen days of the JWST’s mission were the most crucial to its success. Starting as soon as 31 minutes after launch, the telescope began the delicate and precise sequences of deployments that would see it arrive safely in its destination orbit, ready to observe the Universe. Key steps in the deployment included the opening of the tennis court sized sunshield, unfolding of the primary and secondary telescope mirrors and precise manoeuvring burns made with the spacecraft’s thrusters.
After the primary and secondary mirrors were deployed, each of the 18 individual mirror segments that make up the primary mirror had to be aligned to produce a single image. This process involved imaging a bright star and adjusting each segment independently, arranging them in a hexagonal grid pattern before focusing them together at a single point. As of the 25th of February, all 18 segments are working in unison, but are behaving as 18 separate telescopes.
What’s Next for the JWST?
While the space telescope has come a long way, there’s still quite a road to go before it returns the first ‘proper’ images of the cosmos. Final corrections and adjustments will need to be made to the mirrors, and scientific instruments across the telescope will still need to undergo final checks before operation. As the instruments align and calibrate, the telescope must also continue cooling down, aiming to reach a chilling -223 degrees Celsius in order to be fully operational. As of writing, it is expected that the cooling process will take a further several weeks, while the final adjustments of the 7-phase mirror alignment will take about five months.
Riley is an experienced astronomy guide who has been working within the astronomy community for several years. He is incredibly passionate about the night sky and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Science, Math and Education.
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