NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is supposed to provide new insights into the earliest phases of space, arrived yesterday at its destination in orbit around the Sun, about a million and a half kilometers from Earth.
Exactly one month after it was launched from French Guiana, the James Webb Telescope made its final maneuvers to station itself in solar orbit at a position known as Lagrange point number 2 or L2, according to the US space agency NASA.
It will always be in harmony with the Earth
At that position in space, James Webb will be in constant alignment with the Earth as the telescope and the planet orbit the Sun together, enabling uninterrupted radio communication. By comparison, Webb’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, orbited the Earth at a distance of 550 kilometers, coming and going in the shadow of the planet every 90 minutes.
The combined gravity of the Earth and the Sun will keep the James Webb Telescope in a stable position, so that only minimal use of its rocket propulsion will be required to maintain its orbit, said NASA scientist Eric Smith.
Revolutionary infrared telescope
It is a revolutionary $ 9 billion infrared telescope, which NASA has introduced as the leading space science observatory for the next decade. The telescope is a hundred times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope and is expected to profoundly change the understanding of the universe and the place of man in it.
James Webb will mainly observe the universe in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to penetrate the clouds of gas and dust where stars are born, while Hubble acted primarily on optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.
Working in the infrared also means that James Webb will capture light that has entered this spectrum through billions of years of redshift.
This will allow him to capture space objects we have never been able to see before – the first stars and galaxies to form in the early days of space, when he was only about 100 million years old.
These objects then emitted mainly ultraviolet radiation, and for more than 13 billion years, due to the expansion of space, passed through the entire visible spectrum and can now only be detected as very weak infrared radiation. Imaging the first large structures in space should reveal many hitherto unknown facts about the formation of the first stars and galaxies.
The telescope’s main mirror, which consists of 18 hexagonal beryllium-gold-plated segments, has a much larger light-collecting surface.
Supermassive black holes can also be studied
In addition to studying the formation of the earliest stars and galaxies, astronomers will be able to study supermassive black holes believed to occupy the centers of distant galaxies.
James Webb’s instruments will make it possible to look for evidence of an atmosphere that supports life on exoplanets, especially carbon dioxide and methane, but also on much closer space objects such as Mars or Saturn’s moon Titan.
The James Webb Telescope is not intended to look for chemical “biomarkers” that would go a step further in confirming extraterrestrial life.
In the coming weeks, the instruments of the space telescope will be fine-tuned, and it is expected to be fully operational in a few months.