Right now, we don’t have a telescope that can see the surfaces of alien planets.
But on Christmas Day (hopefully), we’ll be launching the next best thing.
After myriad delays, the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch from French Guiana at about 6:20 a.m. CT on Christmas morning. So, if you’re up early to unwrap presents or make breakfast, open your phone or laptop and go to https://www.nasa.gov/nasalive to watch.
While there has been struggles getting this telescope into space, let’s focus on what it can do and why it will be the perfect gift for us astronomy enthusiasts here on Earth.
The JWST, once unfurled, will have a primary mirror size of 21.3 feet and a five-layer sunshield about the size of a tennis court. It is equipped with a near-infrared camera, near-infrared spectrograph, mid-infrared instrument and near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph with a fine guidance sensor.
Sounds fun, but what does all that stuff do?
Well, the telescope will park itself about a million miles from Earth and spend about six months getting ready for observation. Once it’s fired up, the telescope will have two main goals: observing infrared light from around the time the universe first began, and sample starlight filtering through atmospheres of alien worlds.
Scientists believe the universe began about 13.5 billion years ago, and the telescope will be able to look at light emitted from way back then to help gain an understanding of its origin.
It’s the other part, though, that arguably provides more excitement. By looking at how the light of parent stars pass through planets’ atmospheres, we can determine what elements are present and about how much. Observing signatures of oxygen and water, for example, would be promising as far as the possibility of life goes.
In addition to these big things, the JWST will also be studying stellar evolution, as well as objects in our own solar system.
More information on the telescope can be found at https://www.jwst.nasa.gov/content/webbLaunch/assets/documents/WebbMediaKit.pdf. Enjoy the launch, and merry Christmas!