Astronomy watchers got a great treat just after the December solstice, as the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope successfully soared into space early on December 25.
The US $10 billion (nearly CA $13 billion) Webb represents a key moment for Canadian science, thanks to two investments in a spectrograph and a pointing device. Spending the money and providing the personnel for these instruments will in turn give Canada a permanent share of observing time — and will put the country in line for first observations.
But before Webb can turn its attention to the early Universe, exoplanets and other objects of interest in the Canadian science community, it needs to get ready. The telescope is in the middle of a month-long journey to a distant, gravitationally stable point in space — called the second Lagrange point — to give it a spot to observe things, far from stray light. Along the way, ground controllers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland are starting to unfurl the telescope for its work, step by step.
Speaking to SkyNews, the Canadian Space Agency’s director of space exploration development Erick Dupuis said the team was especially pleased to see Webb unfold its sunshield on Tuesday, January 4, with few problems and right on time.
The sunshield — NASA says it has an effective SPF of 1,000,000 — will protect the telescope from sunlight, keeping it at a frigid 40 Kelvin, or -233 C.
“The unfurling and tensioning of the sunshield was one of the highest-risk events on the mission,” Dupuis said. “This was something that had never been attempted before. There was a lot of mechanisms involved. And with that behind us, I would say a significant portion of the risks on the mission has been retired.”
But invoking an oft-repeated phrase uttered in 1973 by then-New York Yankees manager Yogi Berra about a playoff situation — “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” — Dupuis noted that Webb still has a lot of engineering work to do even before the Canadian team can test out its two instruments in space. He pointed to the mirror deployment and alignment as another thing to watch for over the coming weeks. And of course, Webb must reach its destination successfully, too.
Canada will get its chance to do engineering work, as well, but only when Webb is in place, through its basic deployment sequence and ready to accept commands for the commissioning sequence. Dupuis didn’t immediately have the detailed schedule available, but noted that Webb’s nominal commissioning is expected to take around six months after launch, putting early observations in late June or so — but only if everything goes to schedule.
Canada’s role these first few weeks has been hands-off, as the launch was being performed by Arianespace and the early commissioning is the task of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. But these moments have been emotional ones for the Canadian astronomy community nonetheless, which, like other partners, have been working to get this observatory ready for the better part of two decades. Dupuis recalled the launch as an especially tense moment, something which is true of all space missions.
Around thirty minutes after launch, video coming down from the rocket showed Webb successfully leaving its booster and soaring away to deep space, as telemetry came to Earth signalling the telescope got through the first minutes of its mission without issue.
“It’s been a roller coaster of emotions … Rocket launches are stressful events,” Dupuis said. “You’re putting something very precious on top of something very explosive, and you’re sending it out into space. So on launch day, we went from anticipation to stress to anxiety to relief and elation.”
This biweekly column by Canadian science and space journalist Elizabeth Howell focuses on a trending news topic in Canadian astronomy and space.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article including an incorrect temperature conversion. SkyNews apologizes for the error.