Space’s New Frontier

Angie Yang ‘24

From the first man-made satellite launched into space to landing a man on the moon. Many missions have marked space exploration in the past like the Apollo Missions, Voyager 2, and the Hubble Space Telescope. Space has always captured the minds of many and on December 25, 2021, many witnessed the beginning of a new space age. 

On Christmas morning, in Kourou, French Guiana, the James E. Webb Telescope (JWST) successfully launched into space. The $10 billion project was an international collaboration between NASA, European Space Agency (ESA), Canadian Space Agency, and roughly 300 universities, organizations, companies from 29 US states and 14 countries [1]. Beginning the project in 1996, the initial launch was set for 2007. However, a series of many delays like engineering problems, the threat of defunding, and bad management pushed the launch date to 2021. The telescope, originally named the “Next Generation Space Telescope,” was renamed in 2002 to honor James E. Webb (1906 – 1992), NASA’s second administrator. He helped lead the Apollo missions which eventually landed humans on the Moon. James E. Webb initiated a vigorous space program that consisted of over 75 launches, including NASA’s first interplanetary explorers [2]. 

From its launch, it would take the JWST roughly 29 days to make it to its final point, Lagrange point 2 (L2). Lagrange points are points in space where the gravitational pull of two larger masses; in this case, the Sun and the Earth, is equal to the centripetal force that is needed for the object to move with them [3]. It helps a spacecraft maintain a specific position without using a lot of fuel and has been previously used by the Herschel Space telescope, Planck Space Observatory. Launched at 7:20 EST from Kourou, French Guiana, the JWST would have to go through 50 major steps, conduct 178 separate release mechanisms, pass 344 single-point failure components (equipment that if they were to fail, the entire mission would be at risk), and travel roughly 1 million to make it to its home [4]. The JWST launched on Arianespace’s Ariane 5 Rocket, releasing from its launch rocket after only 27 minutes. Its journey consists of several deployments. The first major deployment is of the sunshield, which will occur after 3 days and last for 5 days. Like origami, the layers of the sunshield will unfold. On the 10th day in space, the secondary mirror deployment will happen. Then on the 12th day, the primary mirror will be deployed. From there on, the JWST will be fully deployed, which successfully happened on January 8th, 2022. On January 24, the JWST reached its final destination, orbiting L2. It will take the next 5 months to align its optics and calibrate all the scientific instruments [5]. 

The JWST is a successor to the previous Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990 and is still in use today. The two telescopes have several contrasting features. First, the Hubble is approximately 340 miles from Earth compared to the JWST’s final location of nearly 1 million miles away. Hubble’s close distance allows it to be serviced by space shuttle missions but the JWST will be too far to be serviced. Comparing the technology onboard, the Hubble primarily uses optical and ultraviolet wavelengths while JWST uses infrared sensors. The ability to use infrared allows the JWST to see light from objects in the distance from the expanding universe since the wavelengths get longer and redder [1]. 

There are several main features of the JWST, including the mirrors and sunshield. Out of the 3 mirrors on board, the primary mirrors on the JWST are a striking feature, consisting of 18 thin beryllium segments coated in gold. Each segment can self-calibrate to align properly with the secondary mirror. Beryllium was chosen for its lightweight and durability, among many other things. The gold coating is meant to optimize the ability to read infrared light since it reflects red radiation. The gold coating is so thin it’s calculated to be around 48.25 grams which is roughly the same weight as a golf ball. The primary mirror is 2.7 times larger in diameter and roughly 6 times larger in area compared to the primary mirrors on the Hubble Telescope [2]. The instruments on the JWST are infrared, if it makes contact with the sun’s heat then it will be saturated, so it is crucial for the sensors to make as little contact with the heat emitted by the sun. The sunshield is made up of 5 thin layers of Kapton each coated in aluminum. The layers are angled to ensure that the heat radiation will deflect back into space and not reach the telescope. With the sunshield, it helps ensure that the instruments on the JWST can operate at their operating temperature of -233˚C or -388 ˚F [6]. Without a doubt, the telescope is equipped with several advanced instruments that will further push the ability of space technology.

Not only is the JWST’s purpose to expand on previous discoveries made by the Hubble and previous telescopes, but it is also focused on exploring the first light in the universe, how galaxies assemble, the birth of stars and protoplanetary systems, and the origins of life. Scientists want to look further into the moments after the Big Bang and the Epoch of Reionization, the time when the first stars were created. Additionally, studying how some of the early galaxies were formed will help deepen our understanding of how galaxies form, assemble, and diversify. Unlike previous telescopes, JWST’s infrared technology will help learn more about the Eagle Nebula’s “Pillars of Creation.” This region is famous for being the birthplace of stars but the gas that surrounds it is hard to see through. With its infrared technology, the JWST can locate sources of heat, thus locating stars. Furthermore, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope (launched in 2009, retired in 2018) had discovered many exoplanets, planets located outside the solar system. With JWST’s more powerful sensors, scientists are hoping to explore these planets more and gather more information on the atmospheres and formations conditions of the planets [1].

With its new technology and large potential, the James Webb E. Space Telescope is an exciting, new chapter to space exploration. Granting us all the ability to peer into the past, while taking a step into the future.