James Webb Space Telescope Celebrated in Stunning New Video

Behold, the mighty primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope, in all its gleaming glory! Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

NASA has some high hopes for the James Webb Space Telescope, which finished “cold” phase of its construction at the end of November, 2016. The result of 20 years of engineering and construction, this telescope is seen as Hubble’s natural successor. Once it is deployed in October of 2018, it will use a 6.5 meter (21 ft 4 in) primary mirror to examine the Universe in the visible, near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths.

All told, the JWST will be 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, and will be capable of looking over 13 billion years in time. To honor the completion of the telescope, Northrop Grumman – the company contracted by NASA to build it – and Crazy Boat Pictures teamed up to produce a short film about it. Titled “Into the Unknown – the Story of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope“, the video chronicles the project from inception to completion.

The film (which you can watch at the bottom of the page) shows the construction of the telescopes large mirrors, its instrument package and its framework. It also features conversations with the scientists and engineers who were involved, and some stunning visuals. In addition to detailing the creation process, the film also delves into the telescope’s mission and all the cosmological questions it will address.

In addressing the nature of James Webb’s mission, the film also pays homage to the Hubble Space Telescope and its many accomplishments. Over the course of its 26 years of operation, it has revealed auroras, supernovas and discovered billions of stars, galaxies and exoplanets, some of which were shown to orbit within their star’s respective habitable zones.

On top of that, Hubble was used to determine the age of the Universe (13.8 billion years) and confirmed the existence of the supermassive black hole (SMBH) – aka. Sagitarrius A* – at the center of our galaxy, not to mention many others. It was also responsible for measuring the rate at which the Universe is expanding – in other words, measuring the Hubble Constant.

This played a pivotal role in helping scientists to develop the theory of Dark Energy, one of the most profound discoveries since Edwin Hubble (the telescope’s namesake) proposed that the Universe is in a state of expansion back in 1929. So it goes without saying that the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope led to some of greatest discoveries in modern astronomy.

That being said, Hubble is still subject to limitations, which astronomers are now hoping to push past. For one, its instruments are not able to pick up the most distant (and hence, dimmest) galaxies in the Universe, which date to just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Even with “The Deep Fields” initiative, Hubble is still limited to seeing back to about half a billion years after the Big Bang.

Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. The goal of the Frontier Fields is to peer back further than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and get a wealth of images of galaxies as they existed in the first several hundred million years after the Big Bang. Note that the unit of time is not linear in this illustration. Illustration Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)
Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)

As Dr. John Mather, the project scientist for the James Webb Telescope, told Universe Today via email:

“Hubble showed us that we could not see the first galaxies being born, because they’re too far away, too faint, and too red. JWST is bigger, colder, and observes infrared light to see those first galaxies.  Hubble showed us there’s a black hole in the center of almost every galaxy. JWST will look as far back in time as possible to see when and how that happened: did the galaxy form the black hole, or did the galaxy grow around a pre-existing black hole?  Hubble showed us great clouds of glowing gas and dust where stars are being born. JWST will look through the dust clouds to see the stars themselves as they form in the cloud. Hubble showed us that we can see some planets around other stars, and that we can get chemical information about other planets that happen to pass directly in front of their stars.  JWST will extend this to longer wavelengths with a bigger telescope, with a possibility of detecting water on a super-Earth exoplanet. Hubble showed us details of planets and asteroids close to home, and JWST will give a closer look, though it’s still better to send a visiting robot if we can.”
Basically, the JWST will be able to see farther back to about 100 million years after the Big Bang, when the first stars and galaxies were born. It is also designed to operate at the L2 Lagrange Point, farther away from the Earth than Hubble – which was designed to remain in low-Earth orbit. This means the JWST will subject to less thermal and optical interference from the Earth and the Moon, but will also make it more difficult to service.

With its much larger set of segmented mirrors, it will observe the Universe as it capture light from the first galaxies and stars. Its extremely-sensitive suite of optics will also be able to gather information in the long-wavelength (orange-red) and infrared wavelengths with greater accuracy, measuring the redshift of distant galaxies, and even helping in the hunt for extra-solar planets.

A primary mirror segments of the James Webb Space Telescope, made of beryllium. Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given
A primary mirror segments of the James Webb Space Telescope, made of beryllium. Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given

With the assembly of its major components now complete, the telescope will spend the next two years undergoing tests before its scheduled launch date in October of 2018. These will include stress tests that will subject the telescope to the types of intense vibrations, sounds and g forces (ten times Earth normal) it will experience inside the Ariane 5 rocket that will take it into space.

Six months before its deployment, NASA also plans to send the JWST to the Johnson Space Center where it will be subjected to the kinds of conditions it will experience in space. This will consists of scientists placing the telescope in a chamber where temperatures will be lowered to 53 K (-220 °C; -370 °F), which will simulate its operating conditions at the L2 Lagrange Point.

Once all of that is complete and the JWST checks out, it will be launched aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from Arianespace’s ELA-3 launch pad in French Guayana. And thanks to experience gained from Hubble and updated algorithms, the telescope will be focused and gathering information shortly after it is launched. And as Dr. Mather explained, the big cosmological questions it is expected to address are numerous:

“Where did we come from? The Big Bang gave us hydrogen and helium spread out almost uniformly across the universe. But something, presumably gravity, stopped the expansion of the material and turned it into galaxies and stars and black holes. JWST will look at all these processes: how did the first luminous objects form, and what were they? How and where did the black holes form, and what did they do to the growing galaxies? How did the galaxies cluster together, and how did galaxies like the Milky Way grow and develop their beautiful spiral structure? Where is the cosmic dark matter and how does it affect ordinary matter? How much dark energy is there, and how does it change with time?”

Needless to say, NASA and the astronomical community are quite excited that the James Webb Telescope is finished construction, and can’t wait until it is deployed and begins to send back data. One can only imagine the kinds of things it will see deep in the cosmic field. But in the meantime, be sure to check out the film and see how this effort all came together:

Further Reading: NASA – JWST, Northrop Grumman

The Early Universe Was All About Galactic Hook Ups

In about 4 billion years, scientists estimate that the Andromeda and the Milky Way galaxies are expected to collide, based on data from the Hubble Space Telescope. And when they merge, they will give rise to a super-galaxy that some are already calling Milkomeda or Milkdromeda (I know, awful isn’t it?) While this may sound like a cataclysmic event, these sorts of galactic collisions are quite common on a cosmic timescale.

As an international group of researchers from Japan and California have found, galactic “hookups” were quite common during the early universe. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Subaru Telescope at in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, they have discovered that 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang, galactic clumps grew to become large galaxies by merging. As part of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) “Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS)”, this information could tell us a great about the formation of the early universe.

Continue reading “The Early Universe Was All About Galactic Hook Ups”

The Milky Way’s New Neighbor May Tell Us Things About the Universe

As part of the Local Group, a collection of 54 galaxies and dwarf galaxies that measures 10 million light years in diameter, the Milky Way has no shortage of neighbors. However, refinements made in the field of astronomy in recent years are leading to the observation of neighbors that were previously unseen. This, in turn, is changing our view of the local universe to one where things are a lot more crowded.

For instance, scientists working out of the Special Astrophysical Observatory in Karachai-Cherkessia, Russia, recently found a previously undetected dwarf galaxy that exists 7 million light years away. The discovery of this galaxy, named KKs3, and those like it is an exciting prospect for scientists, since they can tell us much about how stars are born in our universe.

The Russian team, led by Prof Igor Karachentsev of the Special Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), used the Hubble Space Telescope Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) to locate KKs3 in the southern sky near the constellation of Hydrus. The discovery occurred back in August 2014, when they finalized their observations a series of stars that have only one ten-thousandth the mass of the Milky Way.

Such dwarf galaxies are far more difficult to detect than others due to a number of distinct characteristics. KKs3 is what is known as a dwarf spheroid (or dSph) galaxy, a type that has no spiral arms like the Milky Way and also suffers from an absence of raw materials (like dust and gas). Since they lack the materials to form new stars, they are generally composed of older, fainter stars.

Image of the KKR 25 dwarf spheroid galaxy obtained by the Special Astrophysical Observatory using the HST. Credit: SAO RAS/Hubble
Image of the KKR 25 dwarf spheroid galaxy obtained by the Special Astrophysical Observatory using the HST. Credit: SAO RAS

In addition, these galaxies are typically found in close proximity to much larger galaxies, like Andromeda, which appear to have gobbled up their gas and dust long ago. Being faint in nature, and so close to far more luminous objects, is what makes them so tough to spot by direct observation.

Team member Prof Dimitry Makarov, also of the Special Astrophysical Observatory, described the process: “Finding objects like Kks3 is painstaking work, even with observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope. But with persistence, we’re slowly building up a map of our local neighborhood, which turns out to be less empty than we thought. It may be that are a huge number of dwarf spheroidal galaxies out there, something that would have profound consequences for our ideas about the evolution of the cosmos.”

Painstaking is no exaggeration. Since they are devoid of materials like clouds of gas and dust fields, scientists are forced to spot these galaxies by identifying individual stars. Because of this, only one other isolated dwarf spheroidal has been found in the Local Group: a dSph known as KKR 25, which was also discovered by the Russian research team back in 1999.

But despite the challenges of spotting them, astronomers are eager to find more examples of dSph galaxies. As it stands, it is believed that these isolated spheroids must have been born out of a period of rapid star formation, before the galaxies were stripped of their dust and gas or used them all up.

Studying more of these galaxies can therefore tell us much about the process star formation in our universe. The Russian team expects that the task will become easier in the coming years as the James Webb Space Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope begin service.

Much like the Spitzer Space Telescope, these next-generation telescopes are optimized for infrared detection and will therefore prove very useful in picking out faint stars. This, in turn, will also give us a more complete understanding of our universe and all that it holds.

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society

Senate Saves the James Webb Space Telescope!

The 2012 fiscal year appropriation bill, marked up today by the Senate, allows for continued funding of the James Webb Space Telescope and support up to a launch in 2018! Yes, it looks like this bird is going to fly.

JWST's mirror segments are prepped for testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA/Chris Gunn.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System. JWST will be a large infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror.

Thanks to everyone who contacted their representatives and expressed their support of the JWST, to all the websites out there that made it particularly simple to do so, and of course to all the state representatives who stood behind the program and didn’t allow it to get mothballed. The space science community thanks you and the current and future generations of astronomers, physicists, cosmologists and explorers thank you.

“In a spending bill that has less to spend, we naturally focus on the cuts and the things we can’t do. But I’d like to focus on what we can do. The bill invests more than $12 billion in scientific research and high impact research and technology development, to create new products and new jobs for the future.”

– CJS Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski

In addition to continued funding for the telescope the 2012 bill also allots the National Aeronautics and Space Administration $17.9 billion (a reduction of $509 million or 2.8 percent from the 2011 enacted level) and preserves NASA’s portfolio balanced among science, aeronautics, technology and human space flight investments, including the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, the heavy lift Space Launch System, and commercial crew development.

In this tighter economy, all of the agencies funded under the bill are also called on to be better stewards of taxpayers’ dollars, and waste and overspending will be much more closely monitored.

Read the bill summary here.


NOTE: While the JWST program has been specifically included in today’s markup, the bill itself still needs to be approved by the full appropriations committee and then go to the Senate floor for a vote. It then must be reconciled with the House version before receiving final appropriation. Still, this is definitely one step closer to getting the JWST off the ground! Read more on ScienceInsider here.

You can show your continued support for the JWST by liking the Save the James Webb Space Telescope Facebook page and – even more importantly – by contacting your congressperson and letting them know you care!