U of A historian chronicling life of ‘most powerful telescope’ ever as it launches into space Dec. 24

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When the US$10-billion James Webb Telescope launches into space from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana on Christmas Eve, Edmonton expert Robert Smith will be watching and chronicling its every move.

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Smith, a historian of science specializing in astronomy at the University of Alberta, has been following the development and design of the telescope since its early stages in the early 2000s, and will write a book on the history of the telescope after it’s operating far from Earth.

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

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

Engineers unpack, clean and prepare the James Webb Space Telescope ahead of its scheduled launch into orbit, upon its arrival at the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, as seen in this NASA image released on November 2, 2021 and obtained by Reuters on December 13, 2021. NASA/Chris Gunn/Handout via REUTERS.
Engineers unpack, clean and prepare the James Webb Space Telescope ahead of its scheduled launch into orbit, upon its arrival at the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, as seen in this NASA image released on November 2, 2021 and obtained by Reuters on December 13, 2021. NASA/Chris Gunn/Handout via REUTERS.

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

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

It’s an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency .

Two key Canadian components that are part of an estimated CAD $200 million contribution include a guidance system and scientific instrument for examining the atmosphere of faraway planets, something Smith noted is driven by the very old question: “is there life beyond the Earth?” Canadian astronomers will also get a guaranteed slice of the Webb’s observation time.

Smith said the hope is that scientists will discover things they didn’t know they were even looking for.

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

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The Webb telescope will travel about 1.5 million kilometres away – beyond the moon – meaning there will be no way astronauts can come to the rescue with repairs. Smith said while the rocket has a good safety record, there’s always the possibility it could explode, and because it’s folded up “like a piece of origami” when it launches, any issue with its deployment – for example with the sun shield protecting its instruments – could derail its functionality.

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

He noted the rapid development of astronomical knowledge and the telescope need to be put into historical context, stretching back to when people were trying to answer similar questions about the universe, with much less capable technology.

“It was a perfectly reasonable position in 1921 to argue 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 those galaxies are actually expanding away from each other.”

lijohnson@postmedia.com

twitter.com/reportrix

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