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South Carolinians participate in James Webb Space Telescope mission

The James Webb Space Telescope will send back spectacular photos of outer space as its predecessor, the Hubble telescope, did, only from a million miles deeper into space.
The James Webb Space Telescope will send back spectacular photos of outer space as its predecessor, the Hubble telescope, did, only from a million miles deeper into space.

The James Webb Space Telescope will enable scientists to detect energy from millions of years ago.

On Christmas Day, another milestone in space history was reached with the long-awaited launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. Built to greatly extend the range of the earlier Hubble Space Telescope, the Webb will be used by scientists for numerous research projects.

Former astronaut Charles Bolden of Columbia oversaw part of the telescope’s construction as the head of NASA for eight years during the Obama administration. He is excited by the telescope’s primary mission. “Its purpose is to detect energy from the earliest times of the existence of the universe as we know it, and to help us by looking into the atmospheres of some of these distant planets to help us determine whether the atmospheres are such that they could feasibly sustain life, or support life.”

As pilot of the space shuttle Discovery, Bolden deployed the Hubble telescope in 1990. He said the Webb telescope, which will look at infrared energy rather than Hubble’s visible light spectrum, has much greater potential. “Its resolution is 100 times greater than Hubble and its ability to detect energy…in the infrared spectrum is also 100 times greater than Hubble. It is a massively more powerful telescope.”

It also will be located much deeper in space, Bolden said. The telescope recently reached its observing position, one million miles from Earth, where it will remain and transmit observations to the planet in seconds. By contrast, the Hubble telescope is in orbit around 400 miles above Earth’s surface. It will take around six months of testing before Webb’s first observations can be made, probably sometime in June, said Bolden.

Scientists say the telescope will allow them to “look back in time” to the early history of the universe. University of South Carolina astronomy Professor Dr. Varsha Kulkani explained how that would work.

“If I’m looking at a galaxy that’s 100 million light years away, then the light left that galaxy 100 million years ago,” she said. “So that means if you’re looking at farther and farther away objects, you’re actually seeing them at earlier and earlier epochs, as they were at a younger stage of their life. So in that sense it’s like a time machine. It allows us to look further and further back in time.”

Kulkani will be one of the astronomers who will actually use the telescope for research. She explained the process by which scientists are chosen to employ the scope for observations.

“We put in proposals.” (Her team’s was submitted in November, 2020.) “And then they get reviewed by a panel of international experts. It’s very competitive,” she said, but eventually, if a scientist’s, or a team’s, proposal is approved to use the scope, whenever the team’s turn comes, the scope will be pointed in the direction of the area to be studied, and observations will be taken. The information is relayed to the ground, and eventually downloaded on computers on Earth.

“And then they tell the users, ‘okay, your observations are now available. You can download them.’ Then they can start examining it and analyzing it.” Eventually, all the information gathered by the Webb scope will become available to the public, after the scientists are through with their research.

Kulkani’s project will observe dust in space, which she said was important in the formation of stars, and forms “seeds” of future planets from clouds of gas and dust. “Let’s say you have a young star with some material around it that has not yet condensed down to a planetary system. There will be little ‘seeds’ around which, because of gravity, more and more material will coalesce to form bigger and bigger objects. Those will become the proto-planets, and eventually they will become planets. So dust is crucial for a number of different reasons.”

Bolden said his deployment of the Hubble telescope was just the beginning of a line of observation instruments, and Webb is the latest in that line.

“When we deployed Hubble, we did it recognizing that it was a part of the great observatory series. There was an X-ray telescope, a gamma ray telescope. Hubble was all-spectrum but focused primarily on visible light. But we knew there would be follow-on observatories that would enhance what Hubble (saw)…Hubble would be the granddaddy,” the former NASA administrator said. “That would be the real start of the great observatories. But after that, they would only get better and better, as the technology was developed.”

Bolden and Kulkani said the Webb scope will continue to provide the spectacular photographs of space that the Hubble first gave the public – and that Hubble will continue to operate. Bolden added that NASA is well underway designing and building the scope that will eventually replace or extend Webb’s mission.