L2 LAGRANGE POINT (WHTM) — If all goes as planned, on December 25 at 7:20 AM EST, the world is going to get one amazing Christmas present.
An Ariane 5 Rocket will lift off from the European Space Agency spaceport in French Guiana carrying the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s an event that was a long time coming, and according to Robert Furey, Professor of Integrated Sciences at Harrisburg University, frayed a lot of nerves.
“There was a lot of just fear involved,” he said. “Of hurting it or doing something wrong because it was so expensive and took so much time to get it ready to go.”
The Hubble Telescope is in a close earth orbit. If it needed to be serviced, astronauts could be sent up to do the job. By contrast, the Webb Telescope will be over a million miles from Earth. If anything breaks, there’s no fixing it.
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“I do know they’ve been quite scared that something would go wrong because replacing it will be practically impossible,” Furey notes.
Unwrapping this Christmas present is going to take a while. The telescope had to be folded up to fit into the launch fairing, and it will take almost a month to very carefully unfold it, one step at a time.
“The way it folds, I keep running out of adjectives, but it’s astounding really, The way they can make it small, and how large it gets once deployed, it’s an engineering marvel,” Furey said.
It will take the Webb Telescope almost six months to reach its final destination, the L2 Lagrange point, more than one million miles from earth. It’s an area where the gravitational pull of the sun and earth balance out. Objects at a Lagrange point tend to just stay put.
That’s when Webb becomes the gift that keeps on giving.
“I’m waiting for the first images to come back, and I’m sure that once they do start coming back they’re going to show us the best ones first,” said Furey. “And I hope we’ll see something that will really blow our minds.”
The Webb Telescope is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble, and will mostly image in the infrared part of the spectrum. But why go with a light that’s invisible to the human eye?
“The advantage to looking through the infrared is looking through the dust,” Furey explained. “We’ll be seeing stars start forming, generally stars that are forming are inside balls of dust. So we’ll be able to see through that and see what’s going on inside. We’ll probably have an easier time imaging exoplanets.”
The Webb Telescope will, of course, be a boon to astronomers, and scientists in general. Professor Furey hopes its images excite people outside the scientific community.
“I find that my students are more aware about space science even if they’re not students studying anything in that field. And even if all it does is spark a curiosity or an interest in science, or the methodology of science and some of these other areas, well that’s ok. Because you can have more than one interest,” Furey said.
And Professor Furey notes there’s the really big picture to consider.
“I think it’s important to know our place in the universe. Understand where we came from, and where we’re going,” he says.
“It’s beyond the philosophical need, there’s a scientific need, there’s a brass tacks need for it, because if we can understand how all this stuff came to be, then maybe we can start learning how to apply some of it here at home. You know, at the end of the day it’s all physics. And if we can start putting together these images of the way the universe was 13 billion years ago with the way it is now, we can understand a little bit better how things are working at CERN.”
“Everything in the universe everywhere is connected. And to ignore one part is to short shrift the other parts.”