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Explained: James Webb Space Telescope launch date, its goals, debate over its name

The James Webb Space Telescope will be launched on an Ariane 5 ECA rocket from French Guiana in South America. Here's a brief background on the JWST

James Webb Space Telescope (Image source: nasa.gov)

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

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

“Technicians were preparing to attach Webb to the launch vehicle adapter, which is used to integrate the observatory with the upper stage of the Ariane 5 rocket. A sudden, unplanned release of a clamp band – which secures Webb to the launch vehicle adapter – caused a vibration throughout the observatory.”

A brief background on the JWST

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Hopefully, on December 22, NASA will finally launch JWST into orbit where it will act as the space agency’s “premier 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.

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

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

The telescope will travel to a distance of about one million miles (1.5 million km) away from Earth, where it will undergo about “six months of commissioning in space—unfolding its mirrors, sunshield, and other smaller systems; cooling down; aligning; and calibrating. Astronomers worldwide will then be able to conduct scientific observations to broaden our understanding of the universe”.

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It will take about a month for Webb to cover 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 being contributed by the European Space Agency (ESA). The Ariane 5 is believed to be one of the most reliable launch vehicles and will be responsible for making sure that the telescope reaches its destination in space.

What are the telescope’s main goals?

JWST has four central goals, including to search for the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang, to determine how galaxies evolved from their earlier formation until now, to observe the formation of stars from the first stages to the formation of planetary systems and to measure the physical and chemical properties of planetary systems and investigate the potential for life in such systems.

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Webb is carrying four science instruments including the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) with the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS).

Controversy surrounding JWST’s name

Apart from its upcoming launch, another reason why the JWST has been in the news is because of its name. Earlier this year, the telescope was caught in the middle of an LGBT debate, when four prominent astronomers — Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Lucianne Walkowicz and Brian Nord — launched a petition for changing its name. Some members of the community took issue with the fact that James Webb (after whom the telescope has been named and who was NASA’s government appointed administrator in the 1960s) purged LGBT people from the workforce during his tenure.

In October, however, NASA announced that it won’t be renaming the telescope as it had found no evidence that Webb was involved in the persecution of homosexuals.

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Not all astronomers seemed to agree with the four who started the petition. It triggered a debate, nevertheless. Those not in favour of renaming believe that either there is not enough evidence to implicate Webb, or that the window to do so has passed.

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The debate marked a rare instance of astronomers making a political statement. Another recent example is from ornithology in the US, where some scientists sought the renaming of birds named after people linked to racism, slavery and White supremacy. Here, too, ornithologists are divided, because some of them believe that changing names of birds would lead to confusion, and that it is akin to erasing an important part of history.

First published on: 27-11-2021 at 17:09 IST
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