Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket launches with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope onboard December 25, 2021, from the ELA-3 Launch Zone of Europe’s Spaceport at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana. The James Webb Space Telescope (sometimes called JWST or Webb) will study every phase of cosmic history—from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
On December 25, the largest and most powerful space telescope ever constructed by successfully launched from Earth.
With unprecedented technology, the
This image was captured by the cameras on board the rocket’s upper stage as the telescope separated from it. Credit: NASA
The launch represents a major milestone for the project, which began construction back in 2004. After launch, the telescope began a one-month odyssey to its observing perch beyond the moon, an orbital location in space called the second Lagrange point or L2, which is about 1 million miles from Earth. Once there, JWST will complete a six-month process of post-launch commissioning: it will unfold its mirrors, sun-shield, and other systems, and cool down, align, and calibrate.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab
NIRCam is one of four major JWST instruments to observe the sky in various wavelengths. The other three are the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), which will observe the light of distant galaxies, newly forming stars, and faintly visible comets as well as objects in the Kuiper Belt; the Near InfraRed Spectrograph (NIRSpec), which will perform high-resolution spectroscopic observations of 100 cosmic objects simultaneously; and the Fine Guidance Sensor/Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS), which will conduct lower-resolution spectroscopic measurements to characterize the light from the universe’s first stars as well as exoplanets. The MIRI instrument was co-developed by JPL and the European Space Agency.
Once the telescope has finished its setup, Caltech researchers are already among those approved to conduct observations. In collaboration with Professor of Astronomy Dimitri Mawet, who is also a JPL research scientist, and Caltech postdoctoral scholar Jorge Llop Sayson, Beichman and an international team of scientists have received approval to observe Alpha Centauri, the closest sun-like star to the earth, and determine if it has a planet orbiting around it—specifically, a gas planet around the size of
Other observers are planning to use the MIRI instrument to observe Earth-sized planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system explored by the Spitzer Space Telescope to characterize the atmospheric compositions of potentially habitable Earth-like planets for the first time. Overall, Caltech and JPL COSMOS. Few stars and no clouds of gas in our galaxy block our view of this area; it was famously imaged by Hubble and Spitzer, and follow-up data from the Keck telescopes and other ground-based observatories were obtained, to study how galaxies are influenced by both their fundamental physical properties and the environment that surrounds them—a kind of study of nature and nurture in galactic development.
“JWST is expected to expand on that work by providing imaging data at unprecedented spatial resolution to study the structure of far-away galaxies and local places of star formation in them, and to find and characterize the very first galaxies in our universe from more than 13.5 billion years in the past,” says Faisst. “In addition, it will revolutionize our understanding of the universe’s most massive galaxies, and in particular answer the question why some of them have stopped forming stars.”
Beichman emphasizes that JWST is transformative in its capabilities to study a wide range of objects near and far, from those in our solar system to the most distant parts of the universe. “It will serve the entire astronomical and solar system communities with unprecedented capabilities,” he says. “Compared to any previous telescope, ground- or space-based, JWST has a revolutionary ability to take both images and spectra at infrared wavelengths.”