New eyes on ancient space
One of the greatest achievements in human history is unfolding in space.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been successfully deployed.
The JWST is an orbiting infrared observatory that will allow humanity to look back to the beginning of time, and to hunt for the unobserved formation of the first galaxies.
The 20-year, $10 billion development is on the way to its new home - a 1.5-million-kilometre orbit around the Sun in a special gravitational pocket, which will see the Sun’s infrared rays blocked by the Earth (and a massive heat shield on the back of the telescope). From here, it will be able to peer into never before seen parts of space.
JWST has several mission goals; to search for the first galaxies or luminous objects formed after the Big Bang, and to determine how galaxies evolved from their formation until now.
It will also be able to observe the formation of stars from the first stages to the birth of planetary systems.
Additionally, experts will use it to measure the physical and chemical properties of planetary systems, including our own Solar System, and investigate the potential for life in those systems.
JWST is the successor to the famed Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which launched in 1990.
“The JWST will go dramatically beyond what any telescope has been able to do - it will see some of the first stars in the universe, billions of light years away,” says University of Queensland astrophysicist Dr Benjamin Pope.
“By looking at exoplanets as they transit, it will measure their atmospheric composition and detect water and other molecules that could indicate planets capable of sustaining life.
“It changes the game on how we observe planets, stars, asteroids, and the universe around us.”
Dr Pope will be involved in several observation projects, including the ‘kernel phase’ project, observing distant and hard-to-see stars and planets, and on an ‘aperture masking’ project to study planets at the moment they form around stars.
He says JWST should be able to observe asteroids and dwarf planets with greater clarity than ever before.
“One project will use the JWST to study how brown dwarfs form, and since I've worked on a similar project for my Honours thesis using data from the HST, my role will be using the very same algorithm to analyse data from the JWST regarding these brown dwarfs,” Dr Pope said.
“Another project will observe the most important asteroids - the only problem is they're too bright to observe, and images are washed out.
“To deal with this, we've developed methods to make it easier to observe these 'too-bright' stars, that involves a high dynamic range image processing mode - like you'd use on your phone camera to bring out dark shadows and bright highlights.”