NASA readying the launch of $10 billion ‘ultimate time machine’

NASA’s James Webb Telescope will peer further back into the universe’s mysterious history than ever before. Scientists are lauding the upcoming project as the ‘ultimate time machine’.

Decades of careful planning and development is set to finally come to fruition in October with the launch of the world’s most powerful astronomical observatory in history, the James Webb Space Telescope.

Boasting 100 times the observational power of the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s $10 billion USD instrument will bid farewell to Earth shortly after Halloween 2021 and will travel to its distant perch located nearly one million miles from our atmosphere.

Given the timing, NASA’s scientific minds clearly aren’t concerned about bad omens.

Once the Telescope reaches a gravitational eddy known to astronomers as the second Lagrange point (or L2) – where the gravitational forces of two large bodies produce enhanced regions of attraction and repulsion – it will begin several complex processes that may finally help to answer some of the universe’s big existential questions.

Its built-in infrared systems will hope to unearth new exoplanets in our own galaxy, some of which could potentially be habitable. Its central focus though, and what has astronomers most excited, is that it will examine cosmic light and heat radiation from the very first generation of stars formed some 14 billion years ago.

In the broadest terms, NASA’s scientists weren’t lying when they called the JWST the ‘ultimate time machine’. If the headline had you hoping for a real life DeLorean however, we sincerely apologise.

Wrapping your head around the process of studying what is quite literally primitive light can be tricky to say the least, but we’ll do our best to break it down in laymen’s terms. You will hold the attention of the table on your first post lockdown pub trip.

Because light gets stretched out into longer infrared wavelengths as it journeys throughout the universe, a specialised focus on the infrared spectrum is needed to see it – thankfully, the JWST is equipped with just that. Though on the surface the ancient optical light and heat radiation may have long dissipated, its remnants will look gloriously bright through the lens of the infrared telescope.

‘The deeper you look, the further back in time you are looking,’ said Matt Mountain, president of astronomy research firm AURA. ‘James Webb is the ultimate time machine. We are hoping it will reveal this whole class of galaxies that have basically vanished from view from the Hubble Space Telescope.’

On that note, the launch of the JWST represents the passing of the baton from the Hubble Space Telescope to the new flagship astrophysics mission. Deployed in 1990, it continues to orbit about 547 kilometres (340 miles) above Earth and has made more than a million separate observations of distant stars and planets, aiding the study of dark energy, black holes, and the formation of galaxies.

Having turned 30 in 2020, the school bus sized unit has been transmitting about 140 GB of data back to Earth a week, which equates to the download of around 30,000 mp3 files. Anyone remember LimeWire?

The key discovery of the telescope helped to unearth rays of light from the universe’s first ever stars, but to take our research a stage further we must now zero in on its findings with the JWST.

An enormous international cohort of scientists spanning NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency (among others), and countless interdisciplinary scientists across the globe eagerly await the safe launch of the JSWT later this year, with its final tests completed.

Thanks to the JWST’s observational superpowers, we’ll be better equipped than ever to unearth the universe’s biggest secrets.

@thredmag

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