AUSTIN (KXAN) — There’s a new space mission launching on Christmas Day.
NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope is going up into space in less than 24 hours, and two University of Texas at Austin astronomers are heading the research projects for the mission.
“Humans have always been innately curious about the world around them. How did our earth come to be? How did our sun come to be?” said Steve Finkelstein, an associate astronomy professor at UT. “What we’re trying to understand is how did our Milky Way galaxy come to be.”
Finkelstein and Caitlin Casey, with UT’s astronomy department, says the James Webb Space Telescope is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, our premier space telescope that launched in 1990.
“It’s a much larger telescope which means we’ll be able to see objects that are much fainter, and much further away,” said Caitlin Casey, an associate astronomy professor at UT.
Casey says the Hubble telescope primarily works at wavelengths of light that humans are sensitive to.
“The JWST is slightly more energetic in the infrared,” said Casey.
Infrared light travels much further and isn’t easily blocked by objects in space, which means it will allow us to peer through clouds of gas and dust in our own galaxy, where stars are being born today.
Time travel, as some may call it.
“What we’re trying to do here is see what those galaxies first looked like at the time they were first forming,” said Finkelstein. “It’s sort of the first page of the Milky Way galaxy.”
It’s not like things are in the clear at 6:20 a.m. Christmas Morning, when the rocket launches from the ESA’s launch complex in Kourou, French Guian. There’s weeks more of strategic planning and execution to come.
The telescope is folded up like a piece of origami in the head of the rocket. Casey says it has to unfold perfectly in order to do the job.
“There are actually 300 single point failures where that unfolding process could have a mishap,” said Casey.
Its final destination is about 1 million miles from Earth, which is roughly four times the distance to the moon.
“I think the most exciting thing that’s going to come out of the JWST is the questions we don’t even know how to ask right now,” said Finkelstein.
The JWST won’t be a serviceable telescope. Scientists say once it’s a million miles from earth, it’s not coming back. It’s main limitation will be the rocket fuel on board which is needed to keep it in place.
The fuel is expected to last 10 years, but scientists hope they can figure out a way to fuel it in between then.