NASA has announced that on 18 December, after years of delays, the James Webb Space Telescope will finally leave Earth on a mission to revolutionize astrophysics and cosmology.
Before it can study the first stars and galaxies, the observatory must endure a sea voyage, a rocket launch and an all-or-nothing deployment sequence in deep space. Hardly surprising, therefore, that Nancy Levenson, deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute says: “This is the most complex scientific mission that we've done. There’s a lot that has to go right.”
Webb is without question the most advanced space telescope ever built. The spacecraft’s infrared gaze will penetrate cosmic clouds of dust to reveal the hidden details of stellar nurseries and embryonic protoplanets midway through formation. It will also gather the faint photons effused by the first stars and galaxies to form after the big bang - which were initially emitted as visible light but have since been stretched, or “redshifted,” by the expansion of the cosmos.
JWST should therefore be able to see objects 200 million years after the universe was created - what's known as the cosmic dawn - and the hope is that this new space telescope might be able to capture light from single stars within that first generation of stars, something that's long been a goal of astronomers.
“It’s going to help us unlock some of the mysteries of our universe,” says Greg Robinson, Webb’s program director at NASA. “I want to say it’s going to rewrite the physics books.”
But that assumes all goes according to plan. Fingers crossed!
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