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!
The oldest stars in the Universe are cloaked in darkness. Their redshift is so high, we can only wonder about them. The James Webb Space Telescope will be our most effective telescope for observing the very early Universe, and should observe out to z = 15. But even it has limitations.
To observe the Universe’s very first stars, we need a bigger telescope. The Ultimately Large Telescope.
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.
We’re inching closer and closer to the James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST) launch date of March 30th, 2021, (or maybe July 2021.) We never thought we’d get this close, with only a year to go before we send this powerful space telescope on its way. Now the telescope has been put in its launch configuration.
On Jan. 30th, 2020, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope was retired after sixteen years of faithful service. As one of the four NASA Great Observatories – alongside Hubble, Chandra, and Compton space telescopes – Spitzer was dedicated to studying the Universe in infrared light. In so doing, it provided new insights into our Universe and enabled the study of objects and phenomena that would otherwise be impossible.
For instance, Spitzer was the first telescope to see light from an exoplanet and made important discoveries about comets, stars, and distant galaxies. It is therefore fitting that mission scientists decided to spend the last five days before the telescope was to be decommissioned capturing breathtaking images of the California Nebula, which were stitched into a mosaic and recently released to the public.
NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has reached the end of its life. Its mission was to study objects in the infrared, and it excelled at that since it was launched in 2003. But every mission has an end, and on January 30th 2020, Spitzer shut down.
The world’s largest airborne telescope, SOFIA, has peered into the core of the Milky Way and captured a crisp image of the region. With its ability to see in the infrared, SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy) is able to observe the center of the Milky Way, a region dominated by dense clouds of gas and dust that block visible light. Those dense clouds are the stuff that stars are born from, and this latest image is part of the effort to understand how massive stars form.
The field of exoplanet research continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Thanks to missions like the Kepler Space Telescope, over four-thousand planets have been discovered beyond our Solar System, with more being confirmed all the time. Thanks to these discoveries and all that we’ve learned from them, the focus has begun to transition from the process of discovery to characterization.
For instance, a group of astronomers was able to image the surface of a planet orbiting a red dwarf star for the first time. Using data from the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, the team was able to provide a rare glimpse at the conditions on the planet’s surface. And while those conditions were rather inhospitable – akin to something like Hades, but with less air to breathe – this represents a major breakthrough in the study of exoplanets.
Ever since the project was first conceived, scientists have been eagerly awaiting the day that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will take to space. As the planned successor to Hubble, the JWST will use its powerful infrared imaging capabilities to study some of the most distant objects in the Universe (such as the formation of the first galaxies) and study extra-solar planets around nearby stars.
However, there has been a lot of speculation and talk about which targets will be the JWST’s first. Thankfully, following the recommendation of the Time Allocation Committee and a thorough technical review, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) recently announced that it has selected thirteen science “early release” programs, which the JWST will spend its first five months in service studying.
As part of the JWST Director’s Discretionary Early Release Science Program (DD-ERS), these thirteen targets were chosen by a rigorous peer-review process. This consisted of 253 investigators from 18 counties and 106 scientific institutions choosing from over 100 proposals. Each program has been allocated 500 hours of observing time, once the 6-month commissioning period has ended.
As Ken Sembach, the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), said in an ESA press statement:
“We were impressed by the high quality of the proposals received. These programmes will not only generate great science, but will also be a unique resource for demonstrating the investigative capabilities of this extraordinary observatory to the worldwide scientific community… We want the research community to be as scientifically productive as possible, as early as possible, which is why I am so pleased to be able to dedicate nearly 500 hours of director’s discretionary time to these early release science observations.”
The thirteen programs selected include “Through the looking GLASS“, which will rely on the astronomical community’s experience using Hubble to conduct slitless spectroscopy and previous surveys to gather data on galaxy formation and the intergalactic medium, from the earliest epochs of the Universe to the present day. The Principal Investigator (PI) for this program is Tommaso Treu of the University of California Los Angeles.
Another is the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) program, which will conduct overlapping observations to create a coordinated extragalactic survey. This survey is intended to let astronomers see the first visible light of the Universe (ca. 240,000 to 300,000 years after the Big Bang), as well as information from the Reionization Epoch (ca. 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang) and the period when the first galaxies formed. The PI for this program is Steven Finkelstein of the University of Texas at Austin.
However, compared to earlier missions, the JWST will be able to study transiting planets in unprecedented detail, which is anticipated to reveal volumes about their respective atmospheric compositions, structures and dynamics. This program, for which the PI is Imke de Pater from the University of California Berkeley, is therefore expected to revolutionize our understanding of planets, planet formation, and the origins of life.
Also focused on the study of exoplanets is the High Contrast Imaging of Exoplanets and Extraplanetary Systems program, which will focus on directly imaged planets and circumstellar debris disks. Once again, the goal is to use the JWST’s enhanced capabilities to provide detailed analyses on the atmospheric structure and compositions of exoplanets, as well as the cloud particle properties of debris disks.
But of course, not all the programs are dedicated to the study of things beyond our Solar System, as is demonstrated by the program that will focus on Jupiter and the Jovian System. Adding to the research performed by the Galileo and Juno missions, the JWST will use its suite of instruments to characterize and produce maps of Jupiter’s cloud layers, winds, composition, auroral activity, and temperature structure.
This program will also focus on some of Jupiter’s largest moons (aka. the “Galilean Moons”) and the planet’s ring structure. Data obtained by the JWST will be used to produce maps of Io’s atmosphere and volcanic surface, Ganymede’s tenuous atmosphere, provide constrains on these moons thermal and atmospheric structure, and search for plumes on their surfaces. As Alvaro Giménez, the ESA Director of Science, proclaimed:
“It is exciting to see the engagement of the astronomical community in designing and proposing what will be the first scientific programs for the James Webb Space Telescope. Webb will revolutionize our understanding of the Universe and the results that will come out from these early observations will mark the beginning of a thrilling new adventure in astronomy.”
During its mission, which will last for a minimum of five years (barring extensions), the JWST will also address many other key topics in modern astronomy, probing the Universe beyond the limits of what Hubble has been capable of seeing. It will also build on observations made by Hubble, examining galaxies whose light has been stretched into infrared wavelengths by the expansion of space.
Beyond looking farther back in time to chart cosmic evolution, Webb will also examine the Supermassive Black Holes (SMBH) that lie at the centers of most massive galaxies – for the purpose of obtaining accurate mass estimates. Last, but not least, Webbwill focus on the birth of new stars and their planets, initially focusing on Jupiter-sized worlds and then shifting focus to study smaller super-Earths.
John C. Mather, the Senior Project Scientist for the JWST and a Senior Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, also expressed enthusiasm for the selected programs. “I’m thrilled to see the list of astronomers’ most fascinating targets for the Webb telescope, and extremely eager to see the results,” he said. “We fully expect to be surprised by what we find.”
For years, astronomers and researchers have been eagerly awaiting the day when the JWST begins gathering and releasing its first observations. With so many possibilities and so much waiting to be discovered, the telescope’s deployment (which is scheduled for 2019) is an event that can’t come soon enough!
We humans have an insatiable hunger to understand the Universe. As Carl Sagan said, “Understanding is Ecstasy.” But to understand the Universe, we need better and better ways to observe it. And that means one thing: big, huge, enormous telescopes.
In this series we’ll look at 6 of the world’s Super Telescopes:
The James Webb Space Telescope“>James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, or the Webb) may be the most eagerly anticipated of the Super Telescopes. Maybe because it has endured a tortured path on its way to being built. Or maybe because it’s different than the other Super Telescopes, what with it being 1.5 million km (1 million miles) away from Earth once it’s operating.
If you’ve been following the drama behind the Webb, you’ll know that cost overruns almost caused it to be cancelled. That would’ve been a real shame.
The JWST has been brewing since 1996, but has suffered some bumps along the road. That road and its bumps have been discussed elsewhere, so what follows is a brief rundown.
Initial estimates for the JWST were a $1.6 billion price tag and a launch date of 2011. But the costs ballooned, and there were other problems. This caused the House of Representatives in the US to move to cancel the project in 2011. However, later that same year, US Congress reversed the cancellation. Eventually, the final cost of the Webb came to $8.8 billion, with a launch date set for October, 2018. That means the JWST’s first light will be much sooner than the other Super Telescopes.
The Webb was envisioned as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in operation since 1990. But the Hubble is in Low Earth Orbit, and has a primary mirror of 2.4 meters. The JWST will be located in orbit at the LaGrange 2 point, and its primary mirror will be 6.5 meters. The Hubble observes in the near ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared spectra, while the Webb will observe in long-wavelength (orange-red) visible light, through near-infrared to the mid-infrared. This has some important implications for the science yielded by the Webb.
The Webb’s Instruments
The James Webb is built around four instruments:
The Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam)
The Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec)
The Mid-Infrared Instrument(MIRI)
The Fine Guidance Sensor/ Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS)
The NIRCam is Webb’s primary imager. It will observe the formation of the earliest stars and galaxies, the population of stars in nearby galaxies, Kuiper Belt Objects, and young stars in the Milky Way. NIRCam is equipped with coronagraphs, which block out the light from bright objects in order to observe dimmer objects nearby.
NIRSpec will operate in a range from 0 to 5 microns. Its spectrograph will split the light into a spectrum. The resulting spectrum tells us about an objects, temperature, mass, and chemical composition. NIRSpec will observe 100 objects at once.
MIRI is a camera and a spectrograph. It will see the redshifted light of distant galaxies, newly forming stars, objects in the Kuiper Belt, and faint comets. MIRI’s camera will provide wide-field, broadband imaging that will rank up there with the astonishing images that Hubble has given us a steady diet of. The spectrograph will provide physical details of the distant objects it will observe.
The Fine Guidance Sensor part of FGS/NIRISS will give the Webb the precision required to yield high-quality images. NIRISS is a specialized instrument operating in three modes. It will investigate first light detection, exoplanet detection and characterization, and exoplanet transit spectroscopy.
The over-arching goal of the JWST, along with many other telescopes, is to understand the Universe and our origins. The Webb will investigate four broad themes:
First Light and Re-ionization: In the early stages of the Universe, there was no light. The Universe was opaque. Eventually, as it cooled, photons were able to travel more freely. Then, probably hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, the first light sources formed: stars. But we don’t know when, or what types of stars.
How Galaxies Assemble: We’re accustomed to seeing stunning images of the grand spiral galaxies that exist in the Universe today. But galaxies weren’t always like that. Early galaxies were often small and clumpy. How did they form into the shapes we see today?
The Birth of Stars and Protoplanetary Systems: The Webb’s keen eye will peer straight through clouds of dust that ‘scopes like the Hubble can’t see through. Those clouds of dust are where stars are forming, and their protoplanetary systems. What we see there will tell us a lot about the formation of our own Solar System, as well as shedding light on many other questions.
Planets and the Origins of Life: We now know that exoplanets are common. We’ve found thousands of them orbiting all types of stars. But we still know very little about them, like how common atmospheres are, and if the building blocks of life are common.
These are all obviously fascinating topics. But in our current times, one of them stands out among the others: Planets and the Origins of Life.
The recent discovery the TRAPPIST 1 system has people excited about possibly discovering life in another solar system. TRAPPIST 1 has 7 terrestrial planets, and 3 of them are in the habitable zone. It was huge news in February 2017. The buzz is still palpable, and people are eagerly awaiting more news about the system. That’s where the JWST comes in.
One big question around the TRAPPIST system is “Do the planets have atmospheres?” The Webb can help us answer this.
The NIRSpec instrument on JWST will be able to detect any atmospheres around the planets. Maybe more importantly, it will be able to investigate the atmospheres, and tell us about their composition. We will know if the atmospheres, if they exist, contain greenhouse gases. The Webb may also detect chemicals like ozone and methane, which are biosignatures and can tell us if life might be present on those planets.
You could say that if the James Webb were able to detect atmospheres on the TRAPPIST 1 planets, and confirm the existence of biosignature chemicals there, it will have done its job already. Even if it stopped working after that. That’s probably far-fetched. But still, the possibility is there.
Launch and Deployment
The science that the JWST will provide is extremely intriguing. But we’re not there yet. There’s still the matter of JWST’s launch, and it’s tricky deployment.
The JWST’s primary mirror is much larger than the Hubble’s. It’s 6.5 meters in diameter, versus 2.4 meters for the Hubble. The Hubble was no problem launching, despite being as large as a school bus. It was placed inside a space shuttle, and deployed by the Canadarm in low earth orbit. That won’t work for the James Webb.
The Webb has to be launched aboard a rocket to be sent on its way to L2, it’s eventual home. And in order to be launched aboard its rocket, it has to fit into a cargo space in the rocket’s nose. That means it has to be folded up.
The mirror, which is made up of 18 segments, is folded into three inside the rocket, and unfolded on its way to L2. The antennae and the solar cells also need to unfold.
Unlike the Hubble, the Webb needs to be kept extremely cool to do its work. It has a cryo-cooler to help with that, but it also has an enormous sunshade. This sunshade is five layers, and very large.
We need all of these components to deploy for the Webb to do its thing. And nothing like this has been tried before.
The Webb’s launch is only 7 months away. That’s really close, considering the project almost got cancelled. There’s a cornucopia of science to be done once it’s working.
But we’re not there yet, and we’ll have to go through the nerve-wracking launch and deployment before we can really get excited.