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NASA's James Webb Space Telescope: How did the project develop and why is it so important?

This week, the US space agency published the first color images taken by its most powerful telescope, a moment that has been awaited by the scientific community since the last century.

NASA shared this week the first high-resolution color images made by its most powerful space telescope, the James Webb, in the You see colliding galaxies, a dying star shedding layer by layer, a glorious stellar ‘nursery’, and the intriguing signs of water vapor and clouds on a giant planet revolving around a distant star. This is a moment that has been awaited by the scientific community since the last century.

The Webb, which orbits the Sol about a million kilometers from Earth, it seems to be even more powerful than expected by those who devised it. It is able to see further into the depths of space and time than its famous predecessor Hubble – still operational – by collecting the exquisitely weak infrared light emitted by the first stars and galaxies more than 13,000 million years ago. “See things I never dreamed were out there,” said John Mather, Nobel laureate and lead scientist on the project, who began work on the telescope in 1995, after the presentation of the images, quoted by The Washington Post.

How was the project developed?

The ambitious project has been a long and difficult journey. The idea of ​​building an infrared telescope, which was originally called the New Generation Space Telescope, arose in the late 1980s and the US space agency began its design in 1996. Scientists argued that such a space observatory would be able to peer into the depths of the universe, going back in time to a time roughly a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

The launch of the flagship telescope was planned for 2007, but it did not take place until December 25, 2021. The Webb, named after James Webb, who headed NASA between 1961 and 1968, increased in price 20 times in a quarter of a century –until reaching about 10,000 million dollars– and it has almost remained a beautiful dream.

A bet?

The telescope, or the observatory, as scientists often call it, has 18 gold-plated hexagonal mirrors and individually maneuverable that function as a single mirror of about 6 meters in diameter. This gigantic cube of light is not inside a protective tube, but is open to the universe like a flower. Mirrors, cameras and other instruments, which must be kept ultracold for infrared astronomy, are protected from solar radiation by a five-layer sunshade the size of a tennis court. The solar shield and many other components, including the mirrors, collapsed at launch and had to be unfolded during the telescope’s nearly month-long journey to its orbital post.

To send the Webb into space, it had to be made collapsible. Each of the mirror’s 18 segments is equipped with a mechanism that changes its position with an accuracy of less than 10 nanometers (for comparison, a human hair is up to 180 nanometers thick). “Everyone knows that even a woman’s umbrella doesn’t always open well, but here the task in space is to automatically assemble a single mirror from individual panels so that its surface is perfectly smooth. It’s difficult,” he said. Tuesday to TASS Vladimir Surdin, astrophysicist and associate professor at the Department of Physics at Moscow State University (Russia).

A report made in 2018 by an independent review board revealed that the Webb is potentially vulnerable to 344 “one-off bugs”, which could rrill the entire project. The telescope is not designed to be repaired if something goes wrong. The instruments are not modular and cannot be changed if they break. Unlike Hubble, Webb is too far away for astronauts to visit. But none of these specific failures has occurred. However, the Webb has exceeded the scientific expectations of astronomers, despite having recently been hit by a micrometeorite that slightly misaligned one of the mirror segments.

“I am optimistic, but many colleagues they are nervous. The career of some depends on the success of the James Webb,” said Konstantin Batygin, astrophysicist and professor at the California Institute of Technology (USA). ). “Any mistake will mean the loss of 10,000 million dollars and 30 years of work. […] There is no other and there will be no soon,” added Surdin.

Why is it so significant?

The astronomical community is excited, awaiting what it believes will be a revolutionary view of the universe across cosmic distances and with unparalleled resolution. Webb will study the formation of the first galaxies and the evolution of the universe as it has expanded. In addition, you will observe objects found in our own solar system, including small icy worlds beyond the orbit of Neptune. “Based on the chemical composition of their atmosphere, which we can now determine with this telescope, we are going to see if these planets are habitable ,” said the administrator of NASA, Bill Nelson, during the presentation of the new photos.

In addition, Webb exceeds the limitations of Hubble. “Hubble was launched in 1990. There were space observatories before Hubble, but not very big ones. There was Copernicus, there was our Astron telescope. […] But they were all meter-sized mirrors: 60 centimeters, 80 centimeters. They all performed some specific task, whereas Hubble was universal,” Surdin said. “The James Webb is also equipped with instruments that have different functions. There are four in total. They will work in the infrared range because it is practically inaccessible to Hubble,” he added.

The Russian scientist indicated that the Webb “will allow us to see the universe as it was just 250 million, or even 100 million, years after the Big Bang” (the universe is now 13.8 billion of years). Also, the infrared telescope is useful for searching for faint objects. “Even in the solar system, we can’t discover distant dwarf planets or asteroids: they are dark and reflect little sunlight. But they absorb it, heat up and glow in the infrared,” he said. The Webb could even discover a ninth planet that, according to some calculations, lurks somewhere beyond Neptune, he said.

“[The telescope] has capabilities that far exceed my wildest dreams,” Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of Washington, told The Washington Post on Monday. of California in Santa Cruz who in the late 1980s was instrumental in developing plans for an infrared space telescope. “Webb’s capabilities are truly out of this world,” he added.

Webb’s initial deep look into the universe is just a taste of things to come, said planetary astronomer Heidi Hammel. , who is among the scientists scheduled to use the telescope in the coming months. He also described the initial deep look unveiled Monday as “a proof of concept […] that whets our appetite for the record-breaking results we now know will come from this exceptional facility.”

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