NASA’s Webb Telescope promises ‘incredible journey’ for astronomy


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WASHINGTON, Dec.14 (Reuters) – It was completed years late at a much higher cost than expected, but NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch next week, could usher in a new era in the field of astronomy by collecting information on the early stages of the universe, star formation, and whether the planets beyond our solar system may be suitable for life.

The orbiting infrared observatory, designed to be around 100 times more sensitive than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, is due to take off on December 22 on an Ariane 5 rocket from a site in French Guiana on the northeast coast of America from South.

“We are about to take this incredible journey of discovery,” said astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan, a scientist for the Webb project at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “We really talk about discovery because Webb has the raw power to reveal the unexpected. We can plan what we think we can see. But at the end of the day, we know nature will surprise us more often than not.”

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The telescope, equipped with four scientific instruments, is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with European and Canadian space agencies. Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N) is the prime contractor. The launcher is part of the European contribution.

It was developed at a cost of $ 8.8 billion, with operational expenses expected to bring its total price to around $ 9.66 billion. The United States Government Accountability Office said the award has almost doubled since NASA established a cost base in 2009 after previous cost overruns. NASA had hoped to launch it in 2011, but the date has been pushed back several times.

Scientists plan to use the telescope to learn about all phases of the history of the universe dating back to just after the Big Bang event about 13.8 billion years ago, while also studying the exoplanets – planets beyond our solar system – as well as worlds closer to home such as our planetary neighbor Mars and Saturn’s Titan moon.

Webb will primarily examine the universe in the infrared, while Hubble has been examining it since its launch in 1990 primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths. Webb has a much larger light collecting area, allowing him to look at greater distances, therefore further in time, than Hubble.

“We are looking forward to this and are getting very close,” said Greg Robinson, director of the Webb program at the US space agency’s headquarters in Washington.

The telescope arrived in French Guiana in October after a 16 day sea voyage from California through the Panama Canal to Port of Pariacabo on the Kourou River. After launch, it will deploy on a one-million-mile (1.6 million km) month-long journey to an orbit farther than Hubble, beyond the moon.

“We’re going to look at everything in the universe that we can see. We want to know: how did we get here from the Big Bang, how did it work? John Mather said. , Senior Project Scientist Webb at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

His mission objectives include finding the first galaxies or luminous objects formed after the Big Bang and learning about the evolution of galaxies from their initial birth to the present day.

“We want to look at these early growing galaxies,” Mather said.

Objectives also include observing the formation of stars and the planets around them. Mather said Webb can peer into the gas and dust clouds where stars are born. Until now, the dust in these clouds obscured the view.

“The infrared light will bypass the dust grains instead of bouncing around, so we can see it with the Webb telescope. And that’s one of our main goals – to see how the stars are growing, with their young planets,” said Mather.

An instrument called a spectrometer can study the atmosphere of exoplanets. Mather said finding one with lots of water – considered one of the key ingredients in life – would be “really interesting.” As he said: “a wet little planet out there that could be a bit like home.”

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Reporting by Will Dunham, editing by Rosalba O’Brien

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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