The most powerful telescope jumps into space
France, Courou: The world’s most powerful space telescope was launched into orbit yesterday and headed for an outpost 1.5 million kilometers away from Earth after some delays due to technical problems. The James Webb Space Telescope has invested billions of dollars for almost 30 years to keep the Earth trapped in the Ariane 5 rocket from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana.
“What a wonderful day, it’s really Christmas,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s scientific mission, who built the telescope with the European and Canadian space agencies ESA and ACS. “I’m very happy to say that I put the spacecraft in orbit very accurately … Ariane 5 worked very well,” said Josef Aschbacher, chief of ESA.
This was important because getting the spacecraft into orbit helps the telescope save the fuel needed to reach its final destination and then function well. It is expected that it will take a month to reach the remote location. It is set to beam back new clues that will help scientists better understand the origins of the universe beyond our solar system and planets like Earth.
Named after a former NASA director, Webb follows in the footsteps of the legendary Hubble, but aims to show humans how the universe was nearing its birth nearly 14 billion years ago. Speaking on social media, John Mather, co-founder of the Webb project, described the unprecedented sensitivity of telescopes. “#JWST can see signs of bumblebee fever at lunar distance,” he said. All that power is needed to detect the weak glow emitted by the first galaxies that existed billions of years ago and the first stars formed.
Telescopes are unmatched in size and complexity. The mirror is 6.5m in diameter, three times larger than Hubble’s mirror, and consists of 18 hexagonal sections. It’s big enough to fold to fit in a rocket. The operation was laser guided by NASA and imposed strict isolation measures to limit contact with the telescope mirror from particles and human breathing.
When the rocket carries the web 120km, the protective nose of the aircraft, called the “fairing,” is removed and the load is reduced. To protect sensitive equipment from pressure changes at that stage, Rocket Builder’s Arianespace has installed a custom decompression system. “Exceptional measures for exceptional customers,” said a Courou European Space Agency official on Thursday.
The ground crew was supposed to know if the first phase of the flight was successful about 27 minutes after the launch. Upon arriving at the station, the challenge is to fully deploy the mirror and tennis court-sized sunshield. The horribly complex process takes two weeks and must be perfect for Webb to work properly. Its orbit is much farther than Hubble, which has been 600 km above Earth since 1990.
The position of the web’s orbit is called the Lagrange 2 point and was chosen to keep the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon all on the same side of the Sun’s shield. Webb will officially launch in June. – AFP
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