UCF scientists among eager researchers awaiting James Webb Space Telescope launch

JWST launching in October from French Guiana

The conclusion of this test represents the team’s final in a long series of checkpoints designed to ensure Webb’s 18 hexagonal mirrors are prepared for a long life of profound discovery. (Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn) (Hasselblad H6D)

Decades of work is in the balance as NASA enters the final stages before shipping the powerful James Webb Space Telescope to the launch site in the French Guiana.

NASA and the telescope manufacture, Northrop Grumman, provided an update Tuesday on the next generation telescope, which is slated to launch on Oct. 31 onboard an Ariane 5 rocket. Teams have faced delays this year due to the pandemic and previously for hardware issues.

“Over the past year, in this pandemic environment, families, and employees have learned to live and work together like we never imagined and we still kept this observatory going through it,” James Webb Space Telescope program director Greg Robinson said.

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The telescope with its golden 6.5-meter wide mirror remains at Northrop’s facility in California undergoing final preparations before it is shipped in August to the launch site.

Northrop Grumman vice president and program manager Scott Willoughby said he’s been on the project now for 19 years. He has two daughters, 18 and 20, who are in college.

“So we want this one out of the house, so it gets the middle child out of here and in orbit,” Willoughby joked of the telescope.

Willoughby spoke standing in front of the clean room with the gleaming telescope, the two “ears” or panels of James Webb were closed but the space instrument dwarfed workers in white clean suits tending to the telescope.

“This incredibly precise work on the grand scale, it’s like building a Swiss watch at 40 feet tall and 80 feet long and 40 feet wide,” he said.

Willoughby explained teams are preparing James Webb to withstand the vacuum of space and minus 400 degree temperatures for when it gets to its new home four times further than the moon from Earth.

After launch, the telescope will be commanded from a Missions Operations Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. It will take some time, however, before the telescope can begin answering our questions about the universe.

Begoña Vila, with NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, said the timeline to commissioning the new observatory in space begins a few days after launch and lasts for six months.

The first one lasts approximately 30 days after launch and is when JWST will open its “ears” after being folded up inside the rocket nose cone for launch.

“We open the observatory from its folded state inside the rocket to its full glorious size, and it also includes some of the maneuvers that need to happen to get the observatory exactly where it needs to be those 1 million miles away,” Vila explained.

Next, the 18 hexagonal mirrors will need to be aligned in order to correctly observe the stars. About six months after launch, the science instruments will be in their observation modes.

Scientists from 44 countries, and 45 states in the U.S. have been selected to utilize the infrared telescope to study worlds unknown and potentially re-write text books with what we know about the universe.

The first year of observations using James Webb have already been decided, said JWST project scientists Klaus Pontoppidan, with the Space Telescope Science Institute.

“There are many exciting programs in the first year that addresses questions that we didn’t even know we had until a few years ago,” Pontoppidan said.

Some of those research programs include studying a supermassive black hole in the Milky Way and the rate at which the universe is expanding.

University of Central Florida researcher Noemi Pinilla-Alonso, with the university’s Florida Space Institute, was selected among 24,000 proposals. Pinilla-Alonso plans to use the telescope to study small worlds beyond Neptune in an area of the solar system known as trans-Neptunian objects.

“This is a great deal because JWST is going to be an amazing space telescope. We all know the great success of the Hubble Space Telescope, but Hubble observed only one part of the light, called visible light,” Pinilla-Alonso said, adding James Webb will be observing infrared light, a different color, which will pick up different phenomenon in the universe.

Pinilla-Alonso and her team will use JWST to study 59 different objects over 98 observation hours. These primitive objects are very faint, cold and far away, which is why James Webb will be so important. Ground-based telescopes only can observe so far and, according to Pinilla-Alonso, there are no plans for new instruments in the near future to study these trans-Neptunian objects.

“Most of the information about their surface compositions comes from instruments we have never used before,” Pinilla-Alonso said. “So what we’re going to have is a really unique window that is opening now thanks to James Webb to really get to know what these different worlds, what the surfaces are made of.”

She theorizes that some of these distant worlds could be rich in water ices and might hold clues as to how the solar system formed.

“These are very primitive objects so we get information from the very first moments of the formation of the solar system and knowing how our solar system formed, we are better positioned to understand how other planetary systems formed and how the seeds of life are maybe distributed in those other solar systems,” Pinilla-Alonso said.

Pinilla-Alonso said the data from these observations will be a good opportunity for UCF Ph.D. and graduate students to be trained to use the next generation telescope from its early stages.

“They are at a stage in their career where they have to define a lot of things,” she said. “So this opportunity can can be huge for them.”

Pontoppidan said the science team has been preparing planetary scientists and astronomers to use the golden telescope.

“We’ve actually been working for years to train the community through a wide range of different types of training events so this is both in training how to how to use the telescope, as well how to propose, for how the operations work,” Pontoppidan said.

Observations are expected to begin with James Webb in early 2022.

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