Backyard Astronomy: James Webb Space Telescope – Achievement
By Gary Boyle – The Backyard Astronomer
It’s often said, a picture is worth a thousand words and the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope did not disappoint. At the July 12 press conference, the world had a front row seat to the most remarkable images of the universe ever taken. Over the course of the hour, five images left us wanting more. This is just the tip of the cosmic iceberg.
The deep-field image showed thousands of galaxies, including a few that appear stretched out. This is not a defect of the telescope. This is the distortion caused by the gravity of a large foreground galaxy. Einstein predicted this warping or bending of the fabric of spacetime, much like someone standing on a trampoline where the rubber mat is warped. The larger the object, the greater the distortion of light. To show the power of James Webb, the area of space where the deep-field image was taken was as small as a grain of sand held at arm’s length. This cluster is located 4.6 billion light-years away. This is how long it took for light to reach us and when the sun and planets were slowly created from the solar nebula.
Launched on December 25, 2021, the mighty Ariane 5 rocket delivered the seven-ton telescope to space where it was deployed and gracefully continued its journey. It traveled for another 30 days to its final position known as Lagrange 2, a point in space about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, or about four times the Earth-Moon distance. Unlike the Hubble, which was launched in 1990 with a faulty mirror requiring a repair mission in 1993 by fitting it with corrective lenses, James Webb is too far for a service mission. Who knows if there will be such a mission down the road if needed, but for now there are no plans to visit the telescope.
The $10 billion project is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency along with other companies. Canada’s contribution is the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) used to point the Huge Telescope as well as the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS). Thousands of people around the world have worked on this project which began in 1996 when it was first called the Next Generation Telescope. In 2002 the name was changed to James Webb Space Telescope who was the NASA administrator from 1961 to 1968. These were the early days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
The Webb project suffered setbacks along the way, such as a redesign and the Covid pandemic didn’t help matters. When completed, the 18 gold-plated six-sided honeycomb mirrors measure a total of 6.5 meters wide compared to the 2.4-meter wide single Hubble mirror. This results in greater light-gathering power as well as its infrared ability to observe heat signatures through interstellar dust clouds. Another essential element of the telescope is the sunshade measuring the size of a tennis court. Composed of a lightweight material with special thermal properties, the five layers will provide a shield against heat and sunlight as well as heat from its instruments allowing the sensitive infrared to operate without interference. The mirror will operate at -223 degrees Celsius and the rest of the equipment will be near absolute zero or -273 degrees Celsius.
In the wise words of Carl Sagan, “somewhere there is something amazing waiting to be known,” the James Webb Space Telescope has opened a portal of information to discovery. Will we ever see the first infant stars and galaxies dating back 13.8 billion years? Only time will tell.
Known as “The Backyard Astronomer”, Gary Boyle is an astronomy educator, guest speaker and monthly columnist for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada as well as past president of the RASC Ottawa Center. In recognition of its public influence in the field of astronomy, the International Astronomical Union awarded it the name of asteroid (22406) Garyboyle. Follow him on Twitter: @astroeducator, Facebook and his website: www.wondersofastronomy.com