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High hopes are riding on space telescope’s risky launch

The launch of NASA’s $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope from French Guiana could mark a triumph in a tale that thousands of astronomers have been following for a generation. Or it could result in the deepest tragedy.

Either way, the climax is due to unfold beginning on Christmas morning — making for a plot worthy of a holiday movie.

“I’ve been waiting 23 years for this telescope to launch,” University of Washington astronomer Eric Agol told GeekWire.

Agol has been waiting so long that the focus of his research changed completely during the wait. Back in 1998, when the Next-Generation Space Telescope was still on the drawing boards, he was studying gravitationally lensed quasars.

“I was doing some science at the time with ground-based telescopes and, and specifically the Keck Telescope up in Hawaii,” Agol said. “We were spending half a night looking at distant quasars, and then we calculated that with the James Webb Space Telescope, it would take a few milliseconds to do the same observation.”

Now he’s studying planets beyond our own solar system — with an intense focus on TRAPPIST-1, a potentially habitable planetary system 39 light-years from Earth. It’s a testament to the telescope’s versatility that it promises to have just as dramatic effect on that project.

“James Webb is just going to give phenomenal data on this system of transiting planets,” Agol said. “Each of the transits will yield spectral information if there are any signs of atmospheres in these planets. This is the first time where we have a really good chance of probing atmospheres on potentially Earthlike planets.”

But first, the telescope has to get settled at its location in deep space, a million miles from Earth, at a gravitational balance point known as Sun-Earth L2.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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