The next big thing in space exploration
On December 18th, the successor to the Hubble, 25-years in the making, will finally launch into orbit
Doctor Hannah Wakeford has been involved with the Webb Space Telescope since the beginning of her PhD, back in 2011. Currently a lecturer in Astrophysics at the University of Bristol, formerly a research fellow at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, her doctoral research was supposed to build up to the telescope launch, at the time planned for 2014.
On December 18th 2021, just over two months from now and almost a decade since the beginning of her work, she might finally be able to see that long awaited moment materialize, when Webb is launched into orbit. “There are thousands and thousands of transiting planets to look at and study in more detail,” she says. “Can we hope to find life on these worlds? First we need Webb to determine what their atmospheres are like.”
The James Webb Space Telescope is the next big thing in space exploration. Successor to the Hubble Telescope, and developed by NASA in collaboration with the European and Canadian Space Agencies, it is designed to make breakthrough discoveries in the field of astronomy. “It’s the next step in our knowledge of the Universe,” says Dr. Wakford. With its infrared technology and larger light collecting area, courtesy of a 6.5 metre golden mirror, Webb will be able to peer further back in time than Hubble or any other space telescope has done to date.
From the formation of stars and black holes, to the atmospheres of exoplanets and the birth of first galaxies, the telescope will allow us to reach deeper into our origins than ever before, exploring every stage of cosmic history. It could help answer innumerable outstanding questions about our Universe, its origins, and our place within it, going all the way back to the Big Bang.
Development for Webb began 25 years ago, back in 1996, with a launch date planned for 2007 and an allocated budget of half a billion dollars. The project has since racked up a cost of nearly 10 billion USD, and been subject to repeated delays due to numerous unforeseen technical difficulties.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the most recent set of problems had arisen in October 2018 as a result of workmanship issues at the Southern California facilities of NASA’s main contractor for the telescope, Northrop Grumman, where the telescope was being assembled. The additional costs brought on by these errors caused the project to come under fire from Congress, and raised questions as to NASA’s ability to obtain extensive funding for other similar projects in the future.
The COVID-19 pandemic only made matters worse, forcing a lengthy suspension of testing and additional postponements of the launch date, which had been scheduled for March 30th of 2020.
According to Micheline Tabache, who headed ESA’s Washington Office for 7 years, never again will an institutional project of this magnitude be given the go-ahead. “It’s too much money invested in one telescope,” she says over Zoom. “It’s probably going to be a one of a kind thing.”
Ms. Tabache thinks it is likely that in the future projects of this kind will be funded and operated by private entities. With billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson setting up their own space companies, and just this year successfully completing their own launches to space, the prediction isn’t too far-fetched.
While these billionaire space trips may appear to be mere publicity stunts, Ms Tabache argues that there is more at stake. “These men are businessmen. They are doing this because they have the money and the ego, but also because they are convinced that there is a business case behind it.”
In addition to being the first space telescope of its kind, Webb also marks a unique partnership between NASA and its European and Canadian counterparts (ESA and CSA). While international cooperation is a common feature in space projects, the Webb launch will represent the first time an institutional US telescope is launched on a European rocket, and from a European launch site. Ms. Tabache believes it is also likely to be the last.
When discussions began, back in the early 2000s, to define the terms of cooperation on Webb between the European and American space agencies, there was no launcher other than ESA’s Ariane 5 rocket that could successfully launch a telescope as large as Webb. Today, due to restrictions imposed by the Buy American Act and the availability of US-owned heavy lift launch vehicles, it is unlikely, according to Ms. Tabache, that a partnership of this kind would occur.
After a quarter-century of work, Webb has now successfully completed its rigorous testing regimen. Last weekend, it began its two-week long journey to Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America, where, if everything goes to plan, it will launch on December 18th. “There can always be delays,” says Micheline Tabahce, “it’s not gone until it’s gone.” But everyone in the scientific community is hopeful.
After launch, the telescope will deploy on its 30-day, million-mile journey out to the second Lagrange point (L2), from which it will then start to follow the Earth on its orbit around the Sun. 6 months after its arrival at L2, routine science observations will begin, and scientists like Dr Hannah Wakeford will finally be able to make use of the data gathered by the telescope to further their research.
In the three decades it has been in orbit, Hubble has determined the age of the universe, measured the distance of neighboring galaxies and discovered numerous planets and exoplanets. If its predecessor’s achievements are to be any indication, the James Webb Telescope is destined to become a doorway into a trove of knowledge.
“Investing in space science is investing in the unknown future,” says Dr. Wakeford. December 18th will mark the culmination of a lengthy and difficult journey for Webb, and begin an entirely new one: one of unprecedented discoveries and extraordinary advancements in our understanding of the Cosmos.