PHOENIX — When the world’s largest, most expensive, and most powerful space telescope launches from the European Space Center in French Guinea and begins its million-mile journey into deep space on Christmas morning, Dr. Marcia Rieke might pop a celebratory bottle of champagne. She hasn’t decided yet.
“I don't know that we're supposed to have alcoholic beverages on campus,” Dr. Rieke said. “But we might sneak in some champagne.”
Dr. Rieke is a Regents Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. For the past 23 years, Dr. Rieke has worked as the Principal Investigator for the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
NIRCam is one of four cameras positioned on the JWST. It will work to detect infrared wavelengths undetectable to the human eye in an effort to bring humanity images of the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang explosion 13.8 billion years ago.
“This is such a leap forward in capability that we surely will discover something that nobody predicted,” Dr. Rieke said. “When we finally get the data, we're going to be so happy. I mean, we're going to be in seventh heaven.”
The Hubble Space Telescope, Webb’s predecessor, has shaped scientific knowledge of the universe since it launched from the Kennedy Space Center in April 1990. Through the images captured by Hubble, scientists have been able to study dark matter, observe one of two interstellar comets known to have passed through the solar system, and provide us with the first clear look at the surface of Pluto since the dwarf planet was discovered in 1930.
As NASA puts it, “While nearly impossible to provide a comprehensive list of all the scientific contributions Hubble has made so far during its career… [its] explorations have fundamentally changed our perception of the universe and will continue to reveal new insights for many more years.”
But the aging Hubble can only provide imaging up to a certain point.
“Hubble is an ultraviolet optical telescope, meaning very blue wavelengths, a little bit of red,” explained Dr. Rogier Windhorst, a Regents' and Foundation Professor at Arizona State University and an Interdisciplinary Scientists involved in the deployment of the Webb Telescope. “But at some point in [the] wavelength, redder than red, Hubble will run out of steam.”
Two-and-a-half times larger than the Hubble Telescope, Webb will be able to work at longer wavelengths, Dr. Windhorst explained.
“The light from the earliest stars, which are very hot, blue, short-lived stars, will be shifted all the way into the infrared,” Dr. Windhorst said. “And that's where we hope to see these first galaxies and these first stars with the Webb Telescope.”
Getting to that point, however, is not as easy as it sounds.
First, the telescope, which sits aboard the Ariane 5 rocket, will need to successfully launch. Then, it will need to perform a series of critical course corrections before finally reaching its orbital destination about one million miles from Earth.
Once in orbit, Webb will need to cool down, align its mirrors, and calibrate its instruments, according to a fact sheet provided by NASA. After about six months, granted all goes according to plan, we will “get some beautiful data in the middle of next year,” Dr. Windhorst said.
Until then, we wait.
“I want to say that my feelings do not affect the performance of the hardware in space,” Dr. Windhorst said. “But you know, 20 years of meticulous designing and building and testing does. So I feel good, but still a little antsy.”
It’s impossible to guess exactly what the Webb Telescope will discover. Certainly, it’s expected to provide scientists with key information about the formation of galaxies and stars. Furthermore, Webb might be able to tell us whether other planets have Earth-like atmospheres, according to Dr. Rieke.
But Webb is also meant to answer more. Perhaps most pressing, “We want to understand where we come from,” Dr. Windhorst said.
Put another way by NASA, Webb will, “help humankind understand the origins of the universe, as well as our place in it.”
This we know. The universe started with the two simplest chemical elements: Hydrogen and helium.
“And that made it into the first stars,” Dr. Windhorst said. “We hope to see when the other elements that we are made of, like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, what have you… that was all made later in stars. And we hope to better understand the chemistry of that.”
“We were made from the material from previous exploding stars and dying stars,” Dr. Windhorst continued. “We are literally Stardust.”
The James Webb Space Telescope is set to launch at 5:20 a.m. local time on Christmas morning. You can watch a live stream of the launch here.
ASU is also hosting a launch party online beginning at 5 a.m., which you can register for online.