Though it’s not set to launch until at least October, NASA has already picked out one spot for the $10 billion successor to the Hubble to study – and it’s only about 63 light-years from Earth.
The US space agency said the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will study Beta Pictoris, a ‘young planetary system’ that has at least two planets, a number of ‘smaller, rocky bodies’ and a disk comprised of dust.
The goal of the study is to better understand the dust and find out what’s going on in the planetary system, which is similar to the Milky Way, as its debris disk likely includes comets, asteroids, rocks of various sizes, and plenty of dust in all shapes that orbit the star.
A debris disk, which includes comets, asteroids, rocks of various sizes, and plenty of dust, orbits the star Beta Pictoris, which is blocked at the center of this 2012 image by a coronagraph aboard the Hubble Space Telescope
The goal of the study is to better understand the dust and find out what’s going on in the planetary system, which is similar to the Milky Way, as its debris disk likely includes comets, asteroids, rocks of various sizes, and plenty of dust in all shapes that orbit the star
Chris Stark of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said researchers are anxious to find out what’s in the planetary system.
Stark said his team will use the JWST’s coronagraphs to block the light of the star and get a better look at the debris disk, where pebbles and boulders could be zipping through space, resulting in activity.
‘We know there are two massive planets around Beta Pictoris, and farther out there is a belt of small bodies that are colliding and fragmenting,’ Stark explained in a statement.
‘But what’s in between? How similar is this system to our solar system? Can dust and water ice from the outer belt eventually make its way into the inner region of the system? Those are details we can help tease out with Webb.’
Christine Chen of the Space Telescope Science Institute, whose team will look at the spectra, said the system’s dust is of importance, given that it could help researchers understand the collisions that have happened between asteroids and comets.
‘After planets, most of the mass in the Beta Pictoris system is thought to be in smaller planetesimals that we can’t directly observe,’ Chen explained.
‘Fortunately, we can observe the dust left behind when planetesimals collide.’
‘We’ll analyze Webb’s spectra to map the locations of dust and gas – and figure out what their detailed compositions are,’ Chen added. ‘Dust grains are ‘fingerprints’ of planetesimals we can’t see directly and can tell us about what these planetesimals are made of and how they formed.’
Beta Pictoris is twice as massive as the sun, but significantly younger, at just 20 million years old, compared to 4.6 billion for the sun.
The two known planets in the system are ‘both far more massive than Jupiter,’ but it is the first system where ‘exocomets,’ comets in other systems, were discovered, NASA said in a statement.
‘By cataloging the specifics of Beta Pictoris, the researchers will also assess how similar this system is to our solar system, helping us understand if the contents of our solar system are unique,’ NASA added.
Researchers, including team member Isabel Rebollido, are already building models of the planetary system, including one that takes into account what they already know about it, such as radio, near-infrared, far-infrared and visible light from space and Earth-based observatories and will make use of JWST’s instruments to get a better look at the debris disk.
‘Webb is far more sensitive than any other space telescope and gives us a chance to look for this evidence, as well as water vapor where we know there’s gas,’ Rebollido said.
The James Webb Telescope has a massive 21ft 4 inch mirror that was commanded to fully expand and lock itself into place, replicating the process that will happen in space
A NASA spokesperson told DailyMail.com last month the launch of the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope will happen ‘no earlier than October 31.’
In July 2020, the launch of the telescope was pushed back to October 31, 2021 from March 2021, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was initially scheduled to launch as early as 2007, however the telescope has faced a number of delays in recent years.
Some of the delays have been technical issues, which have raised the price of the telescope from the initial estimate of $1.6 billion to the $10 billion it currently costs.
One of the most important parts of the mission is the the five-layer sunshield, which NASA has said previously said is ‘designed to keep Webb’s mirrors and scientific instruments cold by blocking infrared light from the Earth, moon and sun.’
Once it is launched into space on the Ariane 5 rocket, it will settle in space, 930,000 miles above Earth.
NASA recently unfolded the giant mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope ‘like a piece of origami artwork’ one last time ahead of its launch later this year
In August 2019, NASA announced that it had successfully assembled the craft, marking the biggest milestone of its long road to completion.
The JWST will offer unprecedented insight into the atmospheric composition of gas dwarf planets.
The massive telescope will be used to look back to the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago.
It will observe the sources of stars, exoplanets, as well as the moons and planets in the solar system.
In doing so, it will use the most advanced technologies to make observations including infrared light, learning about atmospheres of target worlds that have entirely different chemistry from Earth.
Earlier this year, researchers at The Ohio State University said the telescope could detect a signature of life on other planets in as little as 60 hours.
JAMES WEBB SPACE TELESCOPE: THE NEXT BIG ORBITAL OBSERVATORY DEPLOYED TO SEARCH FOR ALIEN LIFE
NASA and partners plan to launch their next major space telescope later this year and it will serve as the natural successor to Hubble.
Primarily an infrared telescope, it will have a wider spectrum view than Hubble and operate further out from the Earth, in a solar orbit, rather than an Earth orbit.
Research by Ohio State University claims that within five years of it coming online, James Webb will have found signs of alien life on a distant world.
Graduate student Caprice Phillips calculated that it could feasibly detect ammonia created by living creatures around gas dwarf planets after just a few orbits.
The James Webb telescope has been described as a ‘time machine’ that could help unravel the secrets of our universe.
The telescope will be used to look back to the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago.
It will also observe the sources of stars, exoplanets, and even the moons and planets of our solar system.
The James Webb Telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of roughly 40 Kelvin.
This is about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius).
Officials from the space agencies responsible for the telescope say the cost may exceed the $8 billion (£5.6 billion) program cap set by Congress.
NASA has already poured $7 billion (£5 billion) into the telescope since it was first proposed as a replacement for the long-running Hubble space telescope.
When it is launched in 2021, it will be the world’s biggest and most powerful telescope, capable of peering back 200 million years after the Big Bang.
James Webb is designed to last for five years but NASA hopes it will operate for a decade or more, although due to its distance from Earth it can’t be easily repaired.
It is 66ft by 46ft and will operate at the Sun-Earth Lagrange point about 930,000 miles from the Earth – almost four times further out than the moon.
The telescope is set to launch on a European workhorse Ariane-5 rocket at the end of October 2021, with the first observations expected in 2022.