Excitement builds for launch of James Webb Space Telescope

Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Space scientists from across the globe are counting down to the launch of the most advanced observatory ever built.

Excitement is building among University of Leicester astronomers, space scientists and engineers who have played a key role in the planning and construction of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), designed to answer some of the fundamental questions about our Universe.

Leicester engineers provided the mechanical engineering lead for the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to be carried on board the joint NASA, European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency mission, which is due to launch from Kourou in French Guiana on December 18.

Piyal Samara-Ratna is part of the Leicester team which made major contributions to the design, build and test of MIRI, and played a leading role in integrating the instrument into the observatory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He said:

“The building of the James Webb Space Telescope Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is the culmination of over a decade’s worth of effort from engineers and scientists working together from around the globe. The result of this effort is a state of the art unique instrument, which is so sensitive it could see a lit candle on one of Jupiter’s moons.

“The University of Leicester is proud to lead the mechanical engineering for this instrument and it is both exciting and a privilege to see it being prepared for launch.”

Members of the Leicester mechanical engineering team, including Piyal Samara-Ratna (centre) with MIRI.

MIRI, like much of JWST’s instrumentation, will be protected from the intense radiation of the Sun by a huge five-layer sunshade which will unfold remotely as the telescope journeys to its final destination, around Lagrange point 2 (L2), where the gravitational pull of the Earth and Sun is in balance.

Martin Barstow, Professor of Astrophysics and Space Science at the University of Leicester and Chair of the Space Telescope Institute Council, said:

“Working in the infrared, JWST has to be kept cool and away from interfering radiation from the Earth. It will fly in an orbit 930,000 miles from Earth, directly opposite the Sun.

“The launch on December 18 will be both a tremendously exciting and nail-biting event after more than 20 years of planning, development and testing, with many challenges overcome on the way. The tension will not stop after launch. The journey to the L2 orbit takes around one month and several critical events will happen on the way.

“The sunshield will be unfurled about a week after launch and that will be followed by deployment of the tower supporting the telescope, opening of the folded telescope and positioning of the secondary mirror.

“All these operations have to work perfectly for the telescope to function.”

Once operational, though, scientists will look to JWST for a flood of scientific data as they look to answer some of the fundamental questions about our Universe.

Scientific targets identified by Leicester astronomers and planetary scientists have been selected from more than 1,000 submitted by researchers from 44 countries, for a portion of the 6,000 observing hours available in JWST’s first year of operation, known as Cycle 1.

Dr Leigh Fletcher is an Associate Professor in Planetary Science at the University of Leicester and is Principal Investigator (PI) and co-investigator (co-I) on a number of programmes, including study of Jupiter’s famous Great Red Spot, Saturn’s summer pole and rings, and to acquire global infrared maps of Uranus and Neptune to reveal the properties of their stratospheres for the first time. He added:

“We’ve been waiting for so long for this ambitious mission to become a reality, that the excitement is really building to a fever-pitch now. This is arguably the most important launch of a scientific mission in decades.

“Almost all of the research we’ve been doing, up to this point, has been laying the groundwork for the first observations from this telescope, making sure that we’ve gone as far as we can with existing ground-based and space-based telescopes.

“When JWST’s eyes are finally open to the universe in early 2022, they’ll peer into darker, colder, and more distant realms than has ever been possible before.

“Who knows what mysteries and discoveries are waiting for us, hidden until now? Whenever a world-class new facility like this has become reality, we’ve learned to expect the unexpected.”

Find out more about Leicester’s role in developing the most ambitious space telescope ever created at le.ac.uk/physics/research/projects/james-webb-space-telescope.

The MN Colibri arrives in French Guiana with JWST on board, as the telescope completes its final journey on Earth before blasting into space in December. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn