Explained: launch date of the James Webb space telescope, its objectives, debate on its name

NASA has once again changed the launch date of the $ 8 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) from December 18 to 22. The postponement was announced by the space agency on November 22, when it referred to a “recent incident” needed to allow further testing of the observatory.

“The incident occurred during operations at the satellite preparation facility in Kourou, French Guiana, carried out under the overall responsibility of Arianespace,” NASA said in a statement.

“The technicians were preparing to attach Webb to the launcher adapter, which is used to integrate the observatory into the upper stage of the Ariane 5 rocket. A sudden and unplanned release of a clamp band – which secures Webb to launcher adapter – caused a vibration throughout the observatory.

A brief history of the JWST

Hopefully on December 22, NASA will finally launch JWST into orbit where it will act as the space agency‘s “first observatory” for at least the next decade. The telescope is the result of an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency.

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JWST, which is a large infrared telescope, will study “every phase” of the history of the universe, including the Big Bang, the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on other planets and also evolution. of our own solar system. System. It is also considered a successor to the Hubble Telescope and will expand and complement its discoveries.

Because of JWST’s longer wavelengths, for example, it will be able to travel further back in time, “to find the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe and to look inside the clouds. Of dust where stars and planetary systems form today “.

The telescope will travel a distance of about one million miles (1.5 million km) from Earth, where it will undergo about “six months of commissioning in space – unfolding its mirrors, its lens hood. and other smaller systems; return to calm; alignment; and calibration. Astronomers around the world will then be able to make scientific observations to broaden our understanding of the universe ”.

It will take Webb about a month to travel this distance.

How will JWST be launched?

JWST will be launched on an Ariane 5 ECA rocket from French Guiana in South America. The rocket system is provided by the European Space Agency (ESA). The Ariane 5 is considered one of the most reliable launchers and will be responsible for ensuring that the telescope reaches its destination in space.

What are the main purposes of the telescope?

JWST has four main objectives, including researching the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang, determining how galaxies have evolved from their previous formation until now, observing the formation of stars from the earliest stages to the formation of planetary systems and measure the physical and chemical properties of planetary systems and study the potential for life in such systems.

Webb carries four scientific instruments, including the near infrared camera (NIRCam), near infrared spectrograph (NIRSpec), medium infrared instrument (MIRI) and near infrared imager and slitless spectrograph (NIRISS) with guiding sensor end (FGS).

Controversy around the name of JWST

Besides its upcoming launch, another reason JWST has made the news is its name. Earlier this year, the telescope was caught in the midst of an LGBT debate, when four leading astronomers – Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Lucianne Walkowicz and Brian Nord – started a petition to change its name. Some in the community took issue with the fact that James Webb (after whom the telescope was named and who was the government-appointed administrator of NASA in the 1960s) purged LGBT people from the workforce. work during his tenure.

In October, however, NASA announced that it would not rename the telescope because it had found no evidence that Webb was involved in the persecution of homosexuals.

Not all astronomers seemed to agree with the four who started the petition. This nonetheless sparked a debate. Those who are not in favor of the name change believe either there is not enough evidence to implicate Webb or that the window to do so has passed.

The debate marked a rare case of astronomers making a political statement. Another recent example is ornithology in the United States, where some scientists have sought to rename birds named after people linked to racism, slavery and white supremacy. Here, too, bird watchers are divided, as some believe changing the names of birds would be confusing, and it is akin to erasing an important part of the story.

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