“Personally, I am so ready,” said Jane Rigby, an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Rigby has been working on designing the telescope for the past 11 years.
You might wonder why scientists are excited about a new telescope when we already have many of them on the ground, as well as a few in space, such as the more-than-30-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. Rigby said that all the machines work together like players on a baseball team.
“Your pitcher has different skills from your catcher,” she said. “And you recruit those people to do different things.”
With that in mind, scientists have built the Webb telescope specifically to do things that Hubble cannot.
So what will the Webb’s special talents be? Well, lots of things, but the most exciting, said Rigby, is the ability to detect faint amounts of infrared light. This is important, because it will allow scientists to peer straight through the dust and clutter of deep space to see farther than ever before.
“If you think about it like firefighters in a smoky room, it’s really hard to see, right?” said Rigby. “But with infrared goggles, you can see through the smoke and dust.”
The Webb telescope will also benefit from the fact that it will be about 1 million miles away from Earth, which is farther than the moon (nearly 240,000 miles away) and much farther than the Hubble telescope (just 340 miles away). This distance, combined with a fancy, protective sun shield, means that the new instrument will be able to avoid a lot of the blinding light and heat produced or reflected by the Earth, the sun and the moon. Kind of like how it’s easier to see stars in the middle of the woods than it is to see them in a city.
Once it reaches its orbit and unfolds itself like a piece of origami, scientists will begin using the telescope to answer questions such as what happened in the first years after the universe was formed. It will also be able to identify new exoplanets and search for water and other building-blocks of life among the stars.
Now that the telescope is so close to being ready, it’s “both exciting and scary,” said Rigby. She took her son, Ayden, to see the Webb before it was shipped to French Guiana in South America for its launch. The telescope is scheduled to rocket into space December 24, a recent two-day delay from a faulty communication link. There’s going to be so much new and important data coming back, she said.
“It feels a little bit like being at the top of a really steep mountain bike trail,” Rigby said. “You’re looking down the mountain and thinking, ‘Well, it’s going to be a big ride.’ ”
Bittel is a freelance journalist who often writes about animals. He is also the author of “How to Talk to a Tiger . . . and Other Animals.”
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