Cosmic Dawn Holds the Answers to Many of Astronomy’s Greatest Questions

Thanks to the most advanced telescopes, astronomers today can see what objects looked like 13 billion years ago, roughly 800 million years after the Big Bang. Unfortunately, they are still unable to pierce the veil of the cosmic Dark Ages, a period that lasted from 370,000 to 1 billion years after the Big Bang, where the Universe was shrowded with light-obscuring neutral hydrogen. Because of this, our telescopes cannot see when the first stars and galaxies formed – ca., 100 to 500 million years after the Big Bang.

This period is known as the Cosmic Dawn and represents the “final frontier” of cosmological surveys to astronomers. This November, NASA’s next-generation James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will finally launch to space. Thanks to its sensitivity and advanced infrared optics, Webb will be the first observatory capable of witnessing the birth of galaxies. According to a new study from the Université de Genève, Switzerland, the ability to see the Cosmic Dawn will provide answers to today’s greatest cosmological mysteries.

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James Webb’s Upper Stage is off to the Launch Site

In November (or early December) of this year, after many excruciating delays, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will finally launch to space. As the most advanced and complex observatory ever deployed, the James Webb will use its advanced suite of instruments to observe stars, exoplanets, and galaxies in the near and mid-infrared spectrum. In the process, it will address some of the most enduring mysteries about the nature of the Universe.

When the time comes, the James Webb will fly aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from the European Space Agency (ESA) launch facility near the town of Korou, French Guayana. Overnight on August 17th, 2021, the upper stage of that Ariane 5 began making its way in its cargo container from the ArianeGroup facility in Bremen, Germany, to Neustadt port, where it will board a ship bound for the ESA spaceport in French Guiana.

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Another Delay for Webb, But This Time it’s Because of the Rocket, Not the Telescope

The Ariane5 lifting off from Kourou in French Guiana. Image: ESA/Arianespace.

Officials from NASA and ESA this acknowledged the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope will very likely be delayed from the end of October to at least mid-November, 2021. As we reported last month, the usually reliable Ariane 5 has experienced problems on two previous launches where unexpected vehicle accelerations occurred when the fairing separated from the rocket. The fairing is the nose cone used to protect a spacecraft payload during launch and acceleration through Earth’s atmosphere.

“Indeed, there was an anomaly which has been mentioned recently in the media,” said Daniel de Chambure, acting head of Ariane 5 adaptations, during a media briefing on JWST. “The origin of the problem has been found; corrective actions have been taken.”

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James Webb Unfolds Sunshield

It’s almost time.

Soon the James Webb Space Telescope will be on its way to the Sun/Earth L2 Lagrange point and will begin its at least 5-year science mission. Really, it’s going to happen.

Despite several delays since the program began in 1996 and a budget that has exceeded the original by several billion dollars, the launch of the JWST seems close at hand. That is if you consider almost a year away (the new planned launch date is October 31, 2021) to be close.

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There are Planets So Close to Their Stars That They Have Magma Oceans 100km Deep and Winds that Go 8000 km/h

200 light years away, “super earth” exoplanet K2-141b orbits a star so closely that its “year” is only 7 hours long. Not its day…its YEAR! K2-141b orbits a mere million kilometers from the fiery surface of its star. Earth is 150 million km from our Sun. Even Mercury, the planet closest to our Sun, is never less than 47 million km. Standing on the surface of K2-141b you’d look up at an orange star that filled fifty degrees of the sky appearing a hundred times wider than our Sun appears in Earth’s sky. It would be a giant blazing orb so bright that its light shines two thirds of the way around the entire planet unlike Earth’s two day/night halves. Of course, the surface you’re standing on wouldn’t be much of a surface at all – it would be an ocean of liquid hot magma.

Artist’s impression of a close orbiting exoplanet around a star. c. ESO
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James Webb is Working Perfectly! On the Ground. Next Trick: Doing it From Space

Image: James Webb Space Telescope

When it launches next year, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the largest, most complex, and most sophisticated observatory ever sent into space. Because of this, the mission has been delayed multiple times as ground crews were forced to put the telescope through a lengthy series of additional tests. All of these are to make sure that the JWST will survive and function in the vacuum and extreme temperature environment of space.

Recently, the testing teams conducted the critical “Ground Segment Test,” where the fully-assembled observatory was powered up and to see how it would respond to commands in space. These commands were issued from its Mission Operations Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. Having passed this latest milestone, the JWST is now on track for its scheduled launch next year in October.

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James Webb Completes a Comprehensive Systems Test for the First Time

In 1996, NASA began working on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a next-generation infrared observatory that would be a total game-changer. And next year, after multiple delays, cost overruns, and exhaustive testing, the observatory will finally take to space. Despite an additional delay forced by the outbreak of COVID-19, NASA recently announced that it is targeting Oct. 31st, 2021, as the launch date.

In other good news, teams at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center took advantage of the fact that the JWST is now fully-assembled to conduct the highly-critical software and electrical analysis known as the Comprehensive Systems Test (CST). This was the first time that a full systems-evaluation was conducted on the fully-assembled vehicle, and will help ensure that the JWST will function in space when the time comes!

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Well. It Looks Like James Webb is Getting Delayed Again, but it Should Still Launch in 2021

This is probably one of the least surprising announcements to come out of the coronavirus pandemic.

During a virtual meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, made an announcement. He said there’s no way the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will meet its target launch date of March 2021.

Already on a tight timeline, work on the telescope has slowed during the pandemic.

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