NASA launches the James Webb Telescope, which seeks to understand the origins of the universe

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More than 30 years after the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which revolutionized our view of the universe, NASA is preparing for an important new leap in understanding the universe. In this Christmas DayThe US space agency launches a new observatory James Webb. The observatory aims to detect planets capable of harboring life, as well as see the first lights of the universe and the formation of the first stars and galaxies just after the Big Bang – the primeval explosion that gave rise to everything.

Developed by NASA, in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the new telescope will be launched by a European Ariane 5 rocket from the ESA base in Kourou, French Guiana. The launch promises to be one of the most tense in NASA’s history, after decades of delays and many budget adjustments. These recalculations resulted in an unprecedented final cost to the mission: R$51 billion.

The telescope project, named after a former NASA administrator, is now over 30 years old. In that time, it faced threats of cancellation, delays, and technological hurdles. Several other NASA science projects to fund the construction of the telescope have been cancelled. So much so that a file temper nature, one of the world’s most important science journals, referred to James Webb in a 2015 text as “The Telescope That Swallowed Astronomy.”

“Planning for James Webb began in the 1990s as a short, cheap project,” says astronomer Doulia de Mello, of the Pontifical Catholic University of America and a NASA collaborator. “But it was rethought, and it got a new face and billions of dollars. Originally, it should have been brought up in 2007.”

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When the telescope ascends to space, scientists will discover whether all these sacrifices were justified or pointless. Designed as a replacement for the Hubble Telescope – launched in 1990 and still in operation – James Webb is a much larger, more complex instrument with more ambitious goals. The new telescope will not study the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum as Hubble and observatories operating on Earth do. JW will pick up the infrared.

“There are many reasons for this,” he told the British newspaper. Watchman Gillian Wright, director of the Astronomical Technology Center in Edinburgh, UK, is part of the project. “For starters, infrared is the ideal part of the spectrum to search through dust and this is important because stars and planets form in dusty regions. For anyone who wants to understand where and how other solar systems form, James Webb will provide important data,” he said.

look back

The farther away some objects are in space, the fainter and redder their lights become, until they reach the infrared part of the spectrum. Therefore, to study the first chapter of the history of the universe – the first stars to appear – a telescope capable of seeing in the infrared is necessary.

It is important to remember that looking at very distant objects in space is looking at the past. Therefore, the new observatory will act as a kind of time machine.

This is because, given that the speed of light in a vacuum is roughly 300,000 meters per second, it must travel billions of years through space to reach Earth (or, more accurately, to the telescope lenses on which it is focused).

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In other words, the image that the observatory shows us is an image of the star billions of years ago. That’s why when we look away we look back at what has already gone by. This is also why, through these images, we can study how galaxies originated and how the universe itself evolved.

Duília de Mello explains: “What we can expect from the main mission is to see the first galaxies; Webb has always had that job of seeing beyond what Hubble sees.” “But we can expect a lot of things, including unexpected things, which are always nicer.”

Infrared

The telescope will also look at the present, looking for other planets that might harbor life forms. The presence of certain chemicals in the planet’s atmosphere, such as methane, for example, is an important indicator of your ability to support a life form. Infrared vision is essential for this type of analysis.

“James Webb has no way of knowing if there is, in fact, life on a planet,” Duília explains. “But it was able to analyze the atmospheres of the planets, to look for chemical compositions similar to Earth, if they contain oxygen, water and chlorophyll, substances that are synonymous with life on our planet.”

Some ground-based observatories operate in infrared, but for high-quality observations the telescope must be above the atmosphere, which blocks much of the infrared. And James Webb will be much higher, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. Hubble is much closer. It is more than 500 kilometers from our planet.

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There is no solution

What could be a Webb feature can also be a big problem. Because of the distance, no manned missions were planned to support the observatory, as happened with Hubble. In other words, if something goes wrong, no one will be able to go there to fix it. The hypothesis that the observatory is some kind of problem that requires repair is not entirely illogical. It has already happened with Hubble.

To reach this remote and extremely cold point in space, James Webb will face a journey that involves great dangers. Webb will be “unlocked” and collected mid-flight. The process will be completed within six months. Only at the end of this period will astronomers find out whether James Webb will be a great victory for technology or the most costly failure in the history of the space agency.

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