James Webb Space Telescope: science mission

After the successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope on Christmas Day, I look forward to the science this incredible telescope will help us discover.

The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope was incredibly exciting. I don’t think I was the only person holding my breath, watching in awe as Ariane 5’s rockets fired. We saw Webb blast off and power through our atmosphere as it headed for its new home among the stars.

I continued to watch its progress avidly, as it unfurled on its month-long trip of approximately one million miles until it settled into orbit at the second Lagrangian point.

The launch and the deployment of the sun shield and mirrors during its journey through space were vitally important stages and incredible feats of engineering. But perhaps the most exciting part of Webb is still to come: the science mission and discoveries we can expect over Webb’s lifetime.

The James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA GSFC, CIL, Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

This is the very reason so many across the world pooled their knowledge and resources, including:

  • organisations (NASA, the European, Space Agency (ESA), Canadian Space Agency and the Science and Technology Facilities Council)
  • universities
  • scientists
  • engineers
  • technicians
  • astronomers.

A worthy successor to Hubble

Hubble was successful because it captured fantastic images of the universe and helped make many incredible discoveries. Soon we’ll be seeing even more spectacular images of the cosmos coming from Webb instead.

Webb sees at longer wavelengths compared to Hubble and is approximately 100 times more powerful for imaging at the same wavelengths. Therefore, astronomers can use Webb to make even more discoveries about the universe, building on the science Hubble has opened our eyes to.

Four main science missions

Webb has four main science missions, including:

  • looking at first light after the big bang, trying to capture the first stars and the very oldest galaxies
  • galaxy formation and evolution. Currently there are a lot of unknowns surrounding how galaxies formed, assembled and developed the large variety seen in their structure and where their elements come from
  • how do stars form? We know in detail how some stars formed, especially lower mass stars, there are some quite nice examples reasonably nearby, but massive star formation is still a bit of a mystery. The first stars were more than 100 times the mass of our sun and there’s nothing like that near us. Webb’s spectrographs will pinpoint the densest, dustiest regions where star formation is happening. Its infrared cameras can see through this cosmic dust so we can observe into the heart of these dark regions in the sky where stars are being created
  • Webb’s spectrometers will be able to look at the different atmospheres of exoplanets, examining the elements they are made up of, how much carbon monoxide is there, for example, ideally spotting the first signs of life.

Seeing farther

It’s fantastically exciting for UK astronomers. Over 40% of observing proposals selected in a highly competitive process to take observations with Webb in its first year of operation have at least one astronomer from the UK involved.

My own area of study will be the deaths of stars and origins of dust in galaxies. Focusing on the beginnings and ends of a star’s life. With Webb I will be observing sites of massive star-formation in nearby galaxies, which have conditions resembling that of the early universe.

I will also be observing the stunning supernova 1987A which was a massive star that exploded 35 years ago and may be in the process of forming a neutron star or black hole. I expect this new data taken by Webb will be stunning and it will hopefully transform our understanding about the lifecycle of stars.

Though perhaps the most exciting discoveries will be the ones we can’t predict. The new areas of science and understanding Webb reveals throughout its mission.

Top image:  The Ariane 5 rocket carrying the James Webb Space Telescope launches. Credit: ESA, CNES, Arianespace

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