State University historian recounts the life of “most powerful telescope” to ever launch into space on December 24

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When the US $ 10 billion James Webb Telescope launches into space from the European spaceport in French Guiana on Christmas Eve, Edmonton expert Robert Smith will observe and narrate its every move.

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Smith, a science historian specializing in astronomy at the University of Alberta, has followed the development and design of the telescope since its beginnings in the early 2000s, and would write a book on the history of the telescope after it came into operation. far from Earth.

Smith noted that astronomers are understandably worried ahead of launch, as the telescope is expected to further accelerate our understanding of the universe as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which was sent into orbit in 1990.

“Hubble has probably helped transform astronomy, so the hope is that the James Webb Space Telescope will do the same,” Smith said.

Engineers unpack, clean and prepare the James Webb Space Telescope before it is scheduled to launch into orbit, upon arrival at the Kourou, French Guiana launch site, as shown in this NASA image released on November 2, 2021 and obtained by Reuters on December 13, 2021. NASA / Chris Gunn / Document via REUTERS.
Engineers unpack, clean and prepare the James Webb Space Telescope before it is scheduled to launch into orbit, upon arrival at the Kourou, French Guiana launch site, as shown in this NASA image released on November 2, 2021 and obtained by Reuters on December 13, 2021. NASA / Chris Gunn / Document via REUTERS.

Compared to the Hubble, the Webb is larger and more advanced, and will primarily observe infrared light, rather than visible or ultraviolet light, to better see and understand distant galaxies and the origins of the universe.

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“I think it’s fair to say that it’s in many ways the most powerful telescope ever built,” Smith said.

This is an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Two key Canadian elements that are part of an estimated contribution of C $ 200 million include a guidance system and a scientific instrument to examine the atmosphere of distant planets, which Smith noted is prompted by the very old question: ” is there life beyond Earth? Canadian astronomers will also benefit from a guaranteed portion of Webb observing time.

Smith said the hope is for scientists to find things they didn’t even know they were looking for.

“It’s a range of scientific possibilities, but usually with these kinds of big projects people sometimes refer to the conscious expectation of the unexpected,” Webb said, adding that projects like these are also extremely politically and technologically difficult.

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The Webb Telescope will travel approximately 1.5 million kilometers – beyond the moon – meaning there will be no way for astronauts to come to the rescue with repairs. Smith said that although the rocket has a good safety record, there is always the possibility that it could explode, and because it is bent “like a piece of origami” when launched, any problem with it. its deployment – for example with the sun visor protecting its instruments – could derail its functionality.

“This is why there has been so much emphasis on testing the telescope on the ground and trying to make sure that nothing can be left to chance,” Smith said of the long-delayed launch.

He noted that the rapid development of astronomical knowledge and the telescope need to be placed in historical context, going back to when people were trying to answer similar questions about the universe, with much less powerful technology.

“It was a perfectly reasonable position in 1921 to say that no telescope had ever shown a galaxy beyond our own Milky Way galaxy, but now we have a universe full of a myriad of galaxies. , and these galaxies are actually expanding away from each other. . “

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