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Richard Trinder
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@richardtrinder
2:59 PM 24th December 2021
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James Webb Telescope Marks A New Dawn For Humanity

Rendering of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: Northrop Grumman
Rendering of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: Northrop Grumman
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a the culmination of millions of person-hours of highly skilled engineering effort across many countries - the UK included - and a colossal $10 Billion dollars of cold hard cash.

Funded by NASA and the European Space Agency(ESA), and launched by ESA on an Ariane 5 launch vehicle from Kourou, French Guiana, the JWST is slated to be the most significant science project for some years; on a par with the Apollo launches, the Space Shuttles, the International Space Station, and even its predecessor, the Hubble Telescope.

Aside from the science the JW Telescope breaks new grounds in the study of origami - folding a sun shield the size of a tennis court and a 6.5 metre mirror into the 5.4 metre Ariane 5 rocket fairing. That new mirror is considerably larger than Hubble's 2.4 metre equivalent and is likely to produce proportionately more good science.

Hubble's Deep Field photograph
Hubble's Deep Field photograph
By any estimate the Hubble telescope has been a remarkable tool for the discovery and understanding of our solar system, our galaxy, and even further afield.

Before Hubble the age of the universe was estimated to be between 10 and 20 billion years. Hubble has narrowed this down to 13.7 billion.

Hubble provided supporting evidence to show that the universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate.

Hubble showed that a huge number of galaxies have a black hole at their centres, and that there is a deep connection between the central black hole and the way galaxies - including our own - are likely to evolve.

Hubble snapped the famous Deep Field Photo. After staring at a patch of empty sky for days, and taking 342 separate exposures, the 'empty sky' was found to contain over 3000 galaxies! That single image allowed Hubble to justify its cost and to transform our understanding of the universe.

Hubble and JWST

Hubble observes in the near ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared (0.1 to 1 μm) wavelengths. The JWST on the other hand observes at lower frequency range - from long-wavelength visible light through mid-infrared (0.6 to 28.3 μm). The lower frequency will allow it to observe object that are described as 'high redshift'. These objects are too old and too distant for Hubble to observe. In simple terms the JWST will look at objects much further away, and, because light takes quite a while to travel from distant objects it also means JWST is looking back to the time when the light left those distant objects - as far back as 'shortly after' the Big Bang itself.

Despite all size of the JWST it is just about half the mass of the Hubble.

What will JWST do for us?

This project has lofty goals:

The telescope will look back in time and is expected to see the formation of the very first galaxies

to look at the atmospheres of exoplanets and to find those that are potentially habitable

to study the formation and evolution of galaxies

to understand the formation of stars and planetary systems

to study planetary systems and the origins of life

- as I said, lofty goals. But judging from the undisputed success of Hubble, the JWST looks likely to yet again radically transform our understanding of the way the cosmos works. From a purely science-based perspective, this is likely to be a new dawn for humanity - it really is that important.

When it happens, you can follow the launch live of NASA TV here: