New Views of the Galaxy

By: Nick Swafford

Almost twenty eight years. That’s how long the Hubble Space Telescope has been orbiting Earth. Twenty eight years. The popular tv show, The Simpsons had only been airing for only a few months when the Hubble Telescope was launched in 1990. The Berlin Wall in Germany was still standing tall for two months after the telescope went into orbit, and the World Wide Web was created along with the very first web page. To work alongside the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency are creating the next Hubble Telescope: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The James Webb Space Telescope will start a new revolution in space exploration. Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits the Earth, the James Webb Space Telescope will orbit the sun.pasted image 0

In this diagram, L2 represents the James Webb Telescope, which will follow a similar orbit around the sun as L3, which is the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

To tolerate the heat of the sun, the exterior of the spacecraft is engineered specifically to withstand such temperatures. Simply put, the space telescope has two sides: the hot side and the cold side. One side has temperatures of 180 degrees fahrenheit, whilst the other has temperatures of -338 degrees fahrenheit. What makes this difference is the solar shield. Specially designed, it has five layers with the vacuum of space between them, serving as an insulator. Each layer blocks some heat, and pushes the rest through the sides. With five layers of this, the solar shield leaves little heat for the telescope. The telescope needs to be extremely cold in order to pick up infrared light from distant stars, planets, and galaxies; the shields are put in place to ensure that.

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Additionally, the James Webb Space Telescope will have top-of-the-line infrared technologies. This is an important feature because infrared telescopes are invaluable in the search for other planetary and star systems–they can see through gas clouds and other objects that may obscure the telescope’s view. The telescope can peer into the past due to the time it takes light to reach the Earth, and with that, we can watch as distant stars form. The light from the forming worlds that we can observe using the telescope could go back 13.6 million years. With that magnitude of information, a lot of astronomer’s questions will be answered; however, new answers lead to new questions, which are exciting in their own sense.

Through the James Webb Space Telescope, we can also observe how galaxies form and what they look like at their earliest stages of existence. This could explain how we got the wide variety of galaxy shapes and sizes that fill the cosmos, and how the very first galaxies formed. If we look at just the right time, we could see galaxies merging, and, through this, we can predict what the Milky Way’s future merging with the Andromeda galaxy will be like.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to hone in on exoplanets and their atmospheres. Using spectroscopy, the study of the intensity of light wavelengths, astronomers can determine a distant planet’s color, weather, seasons, vegetation, and rotation. In our own solar system, the telescope will be able to further develop theories astronomers have–such as the trace organics in Mars’s atmosphere and the studies of the large planets’ seasonal changes.

The current planned launch for the James Webb Space Telescope is in a year, but it won’t be until mid-2019 when it starts taking photos. The telescope is created specifically so that it can work parallel with other telescopes like the Hubble Telescope. With each snapshot of our universe, human understanding will make great strides into the unknown, and I, for one, cannot wait.


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