The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the most anticipated telescope to follow the wildly successful Hubble Space Telescope, is now safely ensconced in Los Angeles, California, where it will get fully outfitted with four giant solar shields and endure some final pre-launch tests.
Following this last bit of human interaction, the telescope will get folded, placed into a European Ariane 5 rocket, and then pushed along to its launch site. Stepping back a few years, I was lucky enough to get to be an instrument tester for two of the instruments on this grand telescope, the European-built Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), and the U. S.-built Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam).
The procedure is to place the instruments into a vacuum to simulate the environment in outer space. We then would turn on the instruments and make sure they worked according to specs. The testing duties involved writing computer algorithms, performing quality checks on the incoming data, and carefully saving all the technical information. We also had to ensure that the testing facility was staffed 24/7, which sometimes involved taking back-to-back double shifts through the night.
At this point, the construction and testing of all four instruments is complete. One milestone on the horizon to look forward to is the launch itself. It is the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket that will get the JWST into space and deliver it to its new home one million kilometers away (roughly four times the distance of the Earth to the Moon).
From this new address, the observatory will undertake observations that will surely revolutionize astronomy, from taking direct images of planets orbiting other stars, to seeing the birthplaces of stars, and even acquiring images of galaxies 13.4 billion years into the past. This is interesting as the universe is only 13.7 billion years old.
The director of the JWST in Baltimore, MD, has already selected the first scientists to use this marvelous telescope in its normal functioning “Guest Observer” mode. There is a Call for a new round of proposals as well, due on April 6, 2018. In both cases, NASA encouraged the submission of proposals in a worldwide competition that is open to all. Of these, the very best proposals for this next round will be selected also by an internationally-staffed peer-reviewed process.
Given a lot of hard work and a bit of good fortune, JWST will launch in summer, 2019 and start taking the first observations about six months after launch. Go JWST!