On Christmas day 2021, 7:20 am, a golden time machine is launched into space from French Guiana, South America. You may think this sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but let me explain:
The James Webb space telescope is often nicknamed a 'time machine' because of its ability to capture light from the first star that shone through our galaxy. Controversially named after James Webb, the head of NASA for the decade leading to the moon landing and who was also complicit in discriminatory regulations, the telescope was created by the joint effort of the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). So, what is the Webb and what does its launch mean for future astrological discoveries?
Weighing 2,900 kilograms, the space telescope's primary feature is its golden mirror made of gold-plated beryllium. The mirror is hexagon-shaped and measures 6.5 metres wide, making the telescope close to the size of a tennis court. It is so large it needed to be launched folded up inside a rocket. Over its journey, the craft mechanically unfolded itself while engineers from different countries facilitated the process over several weeks. According to NASA, there were over 300 potential single-point failures that could have ruined the 10-billion-dollar mission. But the Webb successfully unfolded on January 8th, 2022. It is currently on course to its permanent orbit known as L2 or the second LaGrange, which is over a million miles from Earth in the opposite direction of the sun.
More powerful than any other telescope, Webb’s technology captures electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths longer than those of visible light, also known as infrared light. Infrared light is often from distant sources in space and time and the wavelength of this light has expanded with the overall expansion of the galaxy. This technology will allow scientists to learn more about the origins of our world. As stated by Vox, the telescope will be able to see as far as 250 million years after the Big Bang when the first starlight shone through our universe. In other words, Webb can see back to the end of the cosmic dark age, the time before there was any light in the universe. It can also peek inside of dust clouds to see how new stars and planets, including our own, develop, and how galaxies are assembled. On top of that, it offers a deeper and much more precise look into our solar system from Mars and outwards. It is equally useful for investigating exoplanets orbiting around other stars, opening the possibility of finding a planet with an atmosphere adequate for life or a planet already inhabiting life.
It is truly amazing that during times that feel more divided than ever, over 1200 skilled scientists, engineers, and technicians, from 14 different countries, worked together on the project just to better understand this big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff that we live on. The Webb space telescope may only be giving us a glimpse into the mystery of our universe and the infinite unknown that is space and time, but with its help, scientists could make revolutionary discoveries.