While you attempt to rub any remnants of sleepiness from your eyes and take on opening gifts, along with other Christmas morning traditions, NASA will be launching its latest gift to the world: the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope.
Webb has been a 25-year international project involving the U.S., Canada and European space agencies, meant to bring scientists into the next age of space exploration. Right now it is considered one of the most powerful infrared and observatory telescopes in existence, as well as a substantial upgrade from the Hubble Telescope since its launch over 30 years ago.
The official mission of the James Webb Space Telescope will take it a million miles to the some of the oldest and furthest edges of space yet to be seen by man or machine (that we at least know of at this time). On the other side of those million miles are galaxies formed over 13.5 billion years ago, not too long after the Big Bang event. Information and images gathered from the telescope could be essential for scientists to better understand the creation of the universe and find out if Earth is unique in its ability to foster life.
The New York Times adds:
The telescope will also help astronomers better study supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies, and planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy.
To achieve these scientific observations, the Webb telescope relies on a primary mirror 6.5 meters in diameter, compared with the mirror on the Hubble, which is 2.4 meters. That gives it about seven times as much light gathering capability and thus the ability to see further into the past.
Another crucial difference is that it is equipped with cameras and other instruments sensitive to infrared, or “heat,” radiation. The expansion of the universe causes the light that would normally be in visible wavelengths to shift into longer infrared wavelengths normally invisible to human eyes.
Everything in this mission must go perfectly for Webb to even begin its million mile journey. Right now this complex feat of engineering, with five layered sunshields the size of tennis courts, has been folded into an origami-like form to fit into the housing of the main rocket capsule.
After launch, when the telescope reaches its staging location in orbit, it will begin the three week process to slowly unfold into working form. This is when I hand it off to the experts like NASA Goddard, who better outlines the intricacies of the telescope and its overall mission:
This next video from Northrop Grumman is an animated rendering showing each step from launch to space. You can follow the time stamps at the top of the video to see the first hours, days and weeks of the telescope’s mission unfold before your eyes.
The James Webb Space Telescope is set to launch inside the Airane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana at 7:20 a.m. EST, with NASA beginning streaming of the launch bright and early at 6 a.m.