The James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST for short, is set to launch less than a month from now on the 18th of December, 2021. This is about 7 years after its initial launch date, and the 14th date in the project’s messy launch schedule. The telescope became a point of constant frustration to some in the astronomical community who depend on its data to further their work, and a point of ridicule and skepticism to others who doubt that it will ever launch at all.
However, for better or for worse, the telescope has finally made it to the launch site in French Guiana where it is now prepped to be loaded into an Ariane 5 rocket. This was not without danger, as the mission operators feared that pirates might high-jack the transport ship and nab the telescope due to its perceived worth of 9 billion dollars. This of course is a misunderstanding, as most of this money went into the development and construction of the telescope, and not the parts and material that it is made from. (Despite its 6.5 meters in diameter golden mirror).
Successor of the Hubble Space Telescope
Once in space, the telescope will fly to the second Lagrange point in Earth’s orbit where it will spend the rest of its operational life as the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope. Here it will be able to observe the universe’s first galaxies and hopefully shed light on our cosmic origins and the birth of stars and planets. While taking these observations, the data can also be used for discovering exoplanets that were too dim to detect with current instruments and potentially find markers of life on these planets and ones that we have already discovered.
New Era of Astronomy
It is hard to express the sheer size of the scientific potential that rests within this telescope, but it is safe to say that a new era of astronomy is upon us. That is, if everything works according to plan with the launch and delivery of the telescope and no problems are found during operation. For example, with the Hubble telescope we discovered that the mirrors were not calibrated to work in the vacuum of space only after launching it, which meant that the telescope could not be focused properly. The full scientific potential of the Hubble telescope could only be fully realized after a corrector lens was installed by astronauts that visited the telescope. Let’s hope that this won’t be necessary for the JWST as the orbit that it is taking will be much further away and not accessible by astronauts. Only time will tell if the mission is a success, and right now all we can do is hope.