NASA’s new telescope and the search for clues to our universe explained

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By Janelle Davis, CNN

(CNN) – The most powerful telescope ever built is slated for December 18. The James Webb Space Telescope will scan the atmosphere of exoplanets, some of which are potentially habitable, and examine the universe deeper than we’ve ever done. could before.

This mission has been in preparation for decades. The telescope concept was first devised to succeed Hubble in 1989, and construction began in 2004. Now Webb, which is 100 times more powerful than Hubble, is ready to go.

CNN asked readers what you wanted to know about the telescope and its mission.

We sent these questions to the experts: Sara Seager, planetologist and astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Matt Mountain, the scientist at Webb’s telescope; and Stefanie Milam of NASA, Associate Scientist of the JWST Project for Planetary Science.

Here is what they said.

How much did it cost to manufacture the telescope?

Stefanie Milam: The construction, launch and commissioning of the Webb Telescope cost NASA $ 8.8 billion. When you include operating costs, that brings the total bill to over $ 9.66 billion.

How long did the telescope take to build?

Milam: At the end of the 80s, Webb went from an idea to a true concept of mission.
In 1996, there was a formal recommendation to build an infrared telescope based in space.

In 2004, construction began and was completed in 2019 with the final assembly of the parts.

What are the main tasks of the telescope?

Matt Mountain: It’s the most complex telescope ever built, so it has to work first.

Second, we want to dig deeper into parts of the universe that we have never seen. We want to be able to go back in time to see how the first stars and galaxies came to be. We want to see how the stars turn into molecular clouds.

Next, we want to explore nearby stars that have planets to see if we can find water on their surface. This is the first sign that there may be life there.

How does the telescope work?

Milam: It works by pointing the telescope at any object in space. The light is then reflected back to the primary mirror to the secondary in the instrument module when images and spectra (light waves) are collected. We then send that data to Earth.

How deep in space will this telescope see compared to other telescopes?

Mountain: With the Hubble Telescope, we could see 13.5 billion years back and see galaxies, but that wasn’t enough. We need to go beyond Hubble to see where these early galaxies and stars came from and how they were created.

With the Webb Telescope, we can roll back within 100 million years of the Big Bang, capturing the light that has traveled 13.6 billion years.

NASA put it this way: “Hubble can see the equivalent of ‘toddler galaxies’ and the Webb telescope will be able to see ‘baby galaxies’.”

How far will the telescope be able to see?

Sara Seager: The telescope can see over 13 billion light years in time. If we want to translate this into distance, it’s 80 billion billion kilometers away.

Where does the telescope go?

Seager: The telescope will travel very, very far. It will be 1 million kilometers from Earth at a special Earth-Sun balance point where it is cold, dark and very suitable for astronomy.

This NASA illustration shows that unlike Hubble, which was orbiting the Earth, Webb will orbit the sun. This orbit is called the second Lagrange point or L2.

Why haven’t we seen any indication of life (intelligent or otherwise) until now?

Seager: We have not yet found signs of life in the atmosphere of planets and exoplanets because we do not yet have the capacity.

As for intelligent life, it’s a whole different story – we listen to messages, but intelligent life has yet to send a message to us as far as our telescopes can tell.

What if the telescope finds life somewhere in the universe? Next steps?

Milam: JWST will not look for life on other planets, but will characterize their atmospheres, looking for molecules of interest like water, carbon dioxide and methane. These molecules will give us an idea of ​​what is happening on this planet, which we will follow with future telescopes.

Once launched, will the Webb Telescope be immediately operational, or is there some setup time first?

Mountain: When launched, the telescope is not ready. It is enveloped in its cocoon, and it must unfold like a butterfly across a million kilometers of space. After about a month, it will take its shape and then scientists will have to operate all the instruments and mirrors. About six months after launch, the Webb Telescope will be ready to take its first photos.

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