August 12, 2022

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

John Bader
25th June, 2022

After 25 years of innovation, invention and perseverance, and many milestones along the way, the James Webb Super Telescope is ready to rewrite space history!

“We are on the precipice of an incredibly exciting period of discovery about our universe. The release of Webb’s first full-colour images will offer a unique moment for us all to stop and marvel at a view humanity has never seen before,” said Eric Smith, Webb program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

On July 12th, NASA will be releasing the first full-colour images captured by the most powerful telescope ever launched into space. The James Webb Super Telescope, launched on December 25th, 2021, is currently orbiting the Sun at a distance of 1 million miles from Earth. In its aptly assigned orbit, Webb is collecting the faint infrared signatures from the earliest stars and galaxies born after the Big Bang, on a mission to unravel one of the biggest mysteries of the universe; the origins of life. 

Webb: Revealing the First Galaxies,
James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

In our ever-expanding universe, light from the first exploding stars has been travelling in space since the event that set off the cascade of explosions and formations that lead to our being today. Due to this expansion, light stretches along the way shifting from short waves of UV light, to visible light, to longer waves of infrared light. This phenomenon, known as cosmological redshift, will allow Webb to detect the invisible infrared light emitted by the most distant stars and galaxies billions of years ago. 

The deeper Webb gazes into space, the further back in time we will be able to see. With its advanced unprecedented instruments, the telescope is off on a promising mission. From the moment it detached from its launch rocket, technicians and astronomers have been orchestrating a well-rehearsed series of deployments that will take the telescope from its folded position to the biggest human-invention in space. 

In order to fulfil its mission, Webb is equipped with a 21-foot-wide mirror, which is made of 18 hexagonal smaller mirrors that can be remotely adjusted to achieve the sharpest focus possible. It is also shielded from the heat of the Sun, Earth and Moon by a five-layer sunshield the size of a tennis court. This sunshield is key to keep Webb at -266 degrees celsius for optimal performance. Otherwise, the heat of the telescope or other nearby objects will mask the infrared light reaching from the early beginnings of the universe. 

Six months into its mission, Webb has already gone through numerous milestones; from launching on a million-mile journey to its orbit, to unfolding into its fully-deployed position, to being hit by a micrometeoroid, yet its journey back in time has just started. The telescope is expected to operate for 10 years, during which it will capture images of infant stars and galaxies, and rewrite the story of our existence. 

“These images will be the culmination of decades of dedication, talent, and dreams – but they will also be just the beginning.”

Eric Smith, Webb program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington

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How did it all start? Where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe? The James Webb Super Telescope is already looking into all these questions… literally!

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John Bader is the News Editor for I,Science and is studying an MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College London