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Peering at the Cosmic Dawn

For astronomers of all creeds, there is only one date this winter that matters: 22 December. That is the new scheduled launch date of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), an instrument set to revolutionise practically every part of space science.

First proposed in the mid-1990s, it was originally supposed to launch in 2004. But the telescope was held back by the fact that the technologies necessary for its deployment weren’t actually invented until 2007. Further delays ensued.

At last, earlier this year, the completed observatory was shipped to the spaceport of Kourou in French Guiana, ready for its 1.5m km journey. It was late, and its cost was $9.7bn up from an original estimate of $0.5bn, but at least it had a launch date.

It is easy to understand why the telescope has generated so much excitement. It is larger and more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, and thus able to see light emitted by objects too old and too distant for that instrument to spot. That means it could see the first stars to switch on in a pitch-black universe, a moment known as the cosmic dawn.

Over time it will shed light on the identity of dark energy and dark matter - those mysterious substances that make up 95 percent of the universe’s content - and give improved images of everything from black holes to exoplanets capable of sustaining life.

With the telescope's history of delays, astronomers everywhere will have their fingers firmly crossed that the new launch date of 22 December does, indeed, go ahead as planned.


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