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International Space Agencies Push New Telescope Forward

Published on 04 February 2014

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by Charlene Porter


Washington, D.C.

NASA Technicians Inspect A Hexagonal Mirror Component
NASA Technicians Inspect A Hexagonal Mirror Component

The next generation in space telescopes is reaching a crucial assembly stage at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Working toward a launch deadline of 2018, NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency are building the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope to peer into distant corners of the universe and better understand the evolution of the cosmos.

All of the components of the massive mirrors that will bring these images to humankind for the first time have been delivered to Goddard, along with instruments assembled elsewhere by partners and contractors. Passing this milestone marks “significant progress for this mission,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden at a February 3 press briefing. The James Webb Space Telescope, named for an early NASA administrator, “will revolutionize our understanding of the universe,” Bolden said at the briefing, attended by representatives of the many agencies and companies involved in the work.

Deputy project manager and technical engineer Paul Geithner led a video tour of the space center “clean room” at Goddard where the instrument’s components are now gathered, awaiting final assembly and testing. Wearing a sterile white jumpsuit to protect the instruments from particles and dust, Geithner described the near-infrared spectrograph, an instrument provided by ESA. This instrument will be able to examine the faint light emitted by distant space objects to analyze the chemical fingerprints left by the elements that make up the objects.

“We’ll be able to see what stars and galaxies are made of,” Geithner said, “and even perhaps detect the molecules that we know are associated with life in atmospheres around other planets orbiting other stars. It’s pretty exciting.”

Space observations of recent years have discovered an abundance of “exoplanets” around other stars. The next stage is to identify terrestrial-like planets that orbit stars in habitable zones where atmosphere and water may likely exist. Geithner looks forward to turning the Webb telescope’s mirrors to planets such as these to find the carbon or oxygen that might support life.

These capabilities make the new telescope the most sophisticated observational instrument ever launched. Senator Barbara Mikulski said, “Even 50 and 100 years from now, they will be writing books about” the discoveries that astronomers will make with the telescope, as they did with the earlier Hubble Telescope.

The Canadian Space Agency delivered its contribution in 2012. The fine guidance sensor will allow the Webb Telescope to point precisely so it can obtain high-quality images. About 1,000 people working on design and manufacture in 187 countries will contribute to the four main instruments on board by launch time, according to mission background documents.

A launcher built by the French company Arianespace will send the telescope into space from the European spaceport located near Kourou, French Guiana. Before the launch, the space partnership will continue to run tests and operational exercises to insure that the Webb Telescope is in top working form when sent into space in 2018. Its mission will be to examine the universe from the first glow of the Big Bang to the formation of galaxies, stars, planets and solar systems. The information it gathers will be available to astronomers all over the world.



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Posted 2014-02-04 13:05:00