The James Webb Space Telescope just took another step toward its highly anticipated 2021 launch. The telescope is stronger than ever.
NASA’s next big James Webb Space Telescope has successfully completed a series of tests to simulate the harsh conditions it will experience during launch.
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Webb’s ability to survive the rocket ride to space is the most violent portion of its trip to orbit about a million miles from Earth.
The telescope has just passed the “environmental testing,” a series of trials designed to simulate the considerable rigors of launch.
The tests took place at the Southern California facilities of aerospace company Northrop Grumman, which is building Webb for NASA.
Scientists subjected the spacecraft to the noise and the vibrations associated with being blasted into orbit. The $9.8 billion telescope received 140 decibels of sound. Also, scientists have shaken it in ways that will happen naturally during its ascent.
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The long-awaited liftoff is scheduled to occur on Oct. 31, 2021, atop an Ariane V rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. However, Webb isn’t going to South America just yet. That’s because it still has to go through a few more tests, including a full systems evaluation.
Thousands of people have been involved in building and testing JWST. In total, 258 companies, agencies, and universities have participated.
Webb will launch in a folded-up configuration. About 30 minutes into its flight, the spacecraft will begin a complex, weeks-long unfolding process to extend its sun shield and mirror.
The powerful telescope will make its way to the Earth-sun Lagrange Point 2, a gravitationally stable point 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.
Astronomers will use Webb for a variety of tasks, from scanning the atmospheres of nearby alien planets for possible signs of life to studying the first stars and galaxies to emerge in our universe.
NASA groups the science goals for the Webb into four themes.
The first one is the first light and reionization, which has to do with the early stages of the universe after the Big Bang started the universe as we know it today.
The second one is the Assembly of galaxies. If you want to see the evolution of the universe, you should be looking at galaxies. The massive observatory will look back at the earliest galaxies to better understand that evolution.
The third one is the birth of stars and protoplanetary systems. Webb will be able to see right through and into massive clouds of dust that are opaque to visible-light observatories like Hubble, where stars and planetary systems are being born.
And finally the fourth is the planets and origins of life. The telescope is going to study the atmospheres of exoplanets, and maybe even find the building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe. Webb will also study objects within our own Solar System.
The telescope and its delays.
The James Webb Telescope has been subject to many delays since the beginning of the project in 1996. Since then, the scope of the project has broadened and the budget expanded from 0.5 billion dollars to 9.8 billion dollars.
The long-awaited and often-delayed telescope was initially set to launch in 2011. Since then the telescope has been a subject of a series of delays and budget-increases.
The latest delay was announced this year. Its planned launch date slipped from March 2021 to 31 October 2021, partially due to the recent pandemic.
Webb is the most ambitious and complex telescope engineers have ever constructed, so it should be worth waiting for.
The spacecraft is going to be the successor to the legendary Hubble Space Telescope, which will probably stop working sometime in the 2030s.
But the two telescopes have different missions and goals.
While Hubble observed the visible spectra of light, James Webb will oversee the infrared spectra.
The Webb telescope is significantly larger than Hubble at 6.5 meters and 2.5 meters respectively. This translates to a 6.5 times increase in collecting area size.
In an initial 10-year mission Webb will study the solar system, directly image exoplanets, photograph the first galaxies, and explore the mysteries of the origins of the Universe.