NASA's Webb telescope to wow astronomers, find first galaxies

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope finished years late at a cost significantly higher than planned, is finally slated for launch next week and the telescope may finally begin its mission of ushering in a new astronomical era of space exploration as it looks into the earliest stages of the universe and looks beyond the solar system for planets that can sustain life, Reuters reports.

The orbiting infrared observatory, designed to be about 100 times more sensitive than its Hubble Space Telescope predecessor, is due to blast off on Dec. 22 on an Ariane 5 rocket from a site in French Guiana on South America’s northeastern coast – though the launch has been delayed for at least two days.

“We're about to go on this amazing journey of discovery,” said astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan, a Webb project scientist the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “We really mean discovery because Webb has the raw power to reveal the unexpected. We can plan what we think we're going to see. But at the end of the day, we know that nature will surprise us more often than not.”

The telescope, boasting four scientific instruments, is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. Northrop Grumman Corp is the primary contractor. The launch vehicle is part of the European contribution.

It was developed at a cost of $8.8 billion, with operational expenses projected to bring its total price tag to about $9.66 billion. The United States Government Accountability Office said the price has nearly doubled since NASA established a cost baseline in 2009 after earlier cost overruns. NASA had hoped to launch it in 2011, but the date was repeatedly delayed.

Scientists plan to use the telescope to learn about all phases of the universe's history dating back to just after the Big Bang event about 13.8 billion years ago, while also studying exoplanets – planets beyond our solar system – as well as worlds closer to homes such as our planetary neighbor Mars and Saturn's moon Titan.

Webb mainly will look at the universe in the infrared, while Hubble has examined it since its 1990 launch primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths. Webb has a much bigger light-collecting area, letting it look at greater distances, thus farther back into time than Hubble.


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