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The JWST: A New Era In Cosmic Discovery Begins

With the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope just days away, it's hard not to reflect on how far we have come in discovering our place in the universe. According to NASA, we have thousands of engineers and hundreds of scientists to thank for making Webb a reality, along with over 300 universities, organizations, and companies from 29 U.S. states and 14 countries. Making Astrafruit a reality was quite the "feat" of its own, but the JWST gives the word a whole new meaning. This two-decade long project isn't over just yet however — they still have to get the thing up into space, followed by a nail-biting six months of unfolding, cooling down, aligning, and calibrating. Hopefully by the time you are reading this, the JWST will be safely deployed and we can all be marveling at the cosmic wonders this $10 billion dollar telescope was built to unravel.

In case you didn't already know, Webb is the successor to The Hubble Space Telescope and is about 100x as powerful. With all the groundbreaking discoveries Hubble has made, it's hard to even imagine what discoveries Webb is capable of. To help put this into perspective, let's take a moment to reflect on some of Hubble's greatest past achievements: 

  • Helped determine the rate at which the universe is expanding
  • Helped determine the age of the universe (13.8 billion years)
  • Discovered two moons of Pluto (Nix and Hydra)
  • Discovered that nearly every large galaxy contains a supermassive black hole at the center
  • Created a 3D map of dark matter

One of the most notable features of Webb is its unprecedented ability to detect light in the infrared spectrum which will enable it to peer farther back in time to see some of the very first galaxies and stars ever formed during the early universe. Assisting with this challenging task is its lightweight, deployable primary mirror, which has a surface area about 6x larger than Hubble's. It's made of a special material called Beryllium, which has a high strength-to-weight ratio, and is coated in an ultra thin layer of gold roughly 1000 atoms thick to optimize reflectivity in the infrared spectrum. Unlike Hubble which orbits around the planet, Webb will operate at a distance nearly 1 million miles from Earth.

One of the most exciting things is that the JWST will also be able to detect planetary systems around nearby stars from their infrared light. It won't have the resolution to see any details on their surfaces, but it will be able to see starlight that passes through their atmospheres, measure compositional gasses, and determine if there is liquid water on the planet's surface. Exoplanets are not the only planets Webb will observe however; it's planned to study our own solar system as well in ways we have never been able to before. All of the discoveries and photos made by the James Webb Space Telescope will be made available to the public, just as they are with Hubble.

Whenever a new telescope is put out into space, it always discovers something it was never expected to. This is a very exciting time for humankind. The only thing left now is to wait and watch the telescope set out for the stars. I think I speak for us all when I say — what a time to be alive!

If you're like us and love all things space, use code TRYASTRA to get a special 20% OFF of Astrafruit: The Cosmic Energy Drink! Our special thanks to you for reading our blog and being curious about the universe.