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James Webb Space Telescope – Looking Back to the Cosmic Dawn
Evidence of how super-smart we are is all around us. From our online casino South Africa to hydrogen-powered cars, we’ve got it taped. Now, space scientists have developed an infra-red looking glass capable of breaching both time and space!
To fully appreciate the scientific and engineering ingenuity of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), we have to understand a basic premise of astronomy. What cosmologists are trying to achieve is find answers to age-old questions, such as:
- How galaxies, stars and planets are formed?
- What creates solar systems?
- Are there planets capable of supporting life?
Clues to these answers lie deep in outer space. The further away constellations, galaxies, exoplanets and other cosmic objects are, the older they are. By capturing the light of nascent stars and distant galaxies, the JWST provides a sneak peek 13.5 billion years back in time!
Astronomers now have the means to compare the earliest stars, planetary systems and galaxies to today’s formations; the data required to boost our understanding of how the universe evolved.
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Images and Data from ‘The Edge’
Unlike the Hubble telescope, which was launched into low Earth orbit 550 km away, the next generation of space telescopes’ final destination is located approximately 1,5 million km from Earth. JWST is designed to operate right on the edge of the observable universe, in what is known as the halo orbit.
By positioning the satellite in dark space, it is possible to see back in time to around 250 million years after the Big Bang. What that in effect means is we now have the ability to view the universe’s ‘cosmic dawn’, a time when the first luminous glows penetrated the cosmos.
How does the JWST achieve its objectives? With a combination of cutting-edge engineering and innovative tools, equipment and scientific instruments.
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Gold Coated Optics
In order to reduce the launch profile of the telescope, all the key features, from the 6.5-metre primary mirror to the multi-layered sunshield, were initially neatly folded away. It was only once the satellite was in position that the components were safely deployed to create a fully-functional super-powerful space telescope.
The telescope’s honeycomb shaped primary reflector is a testament to design. It consists of 18 separate segments manufactured from the rare earth metal, beryllium and coated in gold.
Each segment was designed to move independently and unfold and modify to shape, post launch. Together, the components have a light collecting area of 25.4 square metres, six times that of the Hubble telescope!
A smaller, 0.74 metre, secondary mirror is embedded in the primary mirror. Its job is to reflect the captured infra-red light to the Integrated science Instrument Module (ISIM) housing the cameras and spectrometers.
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Sophisticated Instruments and Devices
How does the telescope capture, analyse and communicate images and data from the dawn of the cosmos? It uses an array of sophisticated instruments and devices, including:
- NIRCam – a near-infrared camera with the capabilities to detect and capture images of light from the earliest constellations and galaxies… as they are being formed. Nascent stars in the Milky Way and objects in the Kuiper Belt are also in the ‘firing line’.
- NIRSpec – a near-infrared spectrograph used to disperse light from an object into a spectrum so as to reveal its physical properties. What is notable about this sensitive tool is its ability to observe multiple objects at the same time. To achieve this, it uses highly adjustable microshutter cells, the width of a human hair, which independently open or close to observe or block out a portion of space!
- MIRI – a mid-infrared instrument, which views light at longer wavelengths than what our eyes can see. As a result, it can detect the light of far-off galaxies, zoom in to newly formed stars and snap images of cosmic objects in the Kuiper Belt.
- FGS/NIRISS – a fine guidance sensor/ near infra-red imager and slitless spectrograph that enables the JWST to adjust precisely to objects in order to take the best possible images. It is also designed to detect and characterise first light and exoplanets – planets that orbit a star other than our sun.
A solar power array, consisting of multiple solar panels, acts as an on-board power pack, while a powerful antenna remits data and receives commands to and from Earth.
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