MARYLAND (WDVM) — On Dec. 25, NASA will launch the biggest and most powerful space telescope ever built: the James Webb Space Telescope.
The new technology will be able to take us back in time to learn about the earliest days of our universe — a time machine of sorts, NASA says.
“Primarily, it was designed to image the very first galaxies in the universe. We think these galaxies formed somewhere between 100 to 300 million years ago, after the big bang,” said Dr. Mark Clampin, NASA director of sciences and exploration.
Clampin says the telescope has a shield the size of a tennis court that will block sunlight from its position one million miles away from earth.
“It has a large mirror which collects a lot more light, and it works in the infrared, which means it can see the light from these very first objects,” said Clampin.
The light from stars formed millions of years ago is faint, and can’t be reached by telescopes in space, until now. The James Webb telescope will advance the search for potential life on other planets.
“In particular, with Webb, we’re targeting planets that we know exist in that zone where water could exist on the planet, and then we try to see what their atmospheres are made of,” said Clampin. “Are they similar to earth’s, are they very different?”
A telescope as complex as Webb poses some unique problems, such as needing to be cooled to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
“The challenge in doing infrared astronomy is that its heat radiations,” said Clampin. “You have to make sure the telescope is much colder than the radiation you’re trying to study.”
Due to its size, the telescope will have to be assembled once it arrives in space.
“Because it is so large, it doesn’t fit in the rocket’s operation configuration, so we have to fold everything up for launch, and then once in space, we have to unfold everything again,” said Clampin.
Once launched, it will take roughly 30 days to deploy the telescope’s membranes and mirror. The entire process, Clampin says, will be about six months until the science aspect of the mission can begin.
Follow along on the mission by visiting NASA’s James Webb telescope homepage.