NASA is set for another Apollo moment with the launch of its new James Webb Space Telescope as early as Dec. 24, barring complications. Billed as NASA’s most ambitious telescope to date, its purpose is to fundamentally alter our understanding of the universe.
Light takes time to travel. The nearest star to Earth is four light-years away, so the image we see of it is actually four years old. The new $10 billion instrument is so powerful it will allow us to see farther, essentially to look back in time to see how the first stars and galaxies came into existence. It will also let us peer into the atmospheres of exoplanets — some of which are potentially habitable — as they pass before stars. The light filtering through the atmosphere will leave telltale signs of the atmospheric components.
Mercedes López-Morales, a lecturer in the Department of Astronomy and an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, will be among the first researchers to use the Webb as part of a project to observe more than a dozen small planets during the telescope’s first cycle. The Gazette spoke to López-Morales about the new telescope, which was named after the former NASA administrator who led the agency through the Apollo missions, and why it has the scientific community so excited. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: Can you talk about the mission of the Webb telescope?
LÓPEZ-MORALES: The James Webb Telescope is the most important flagship space mission ever built. It’s considered the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched more than 30 years ago and completely changed the way we understand how the universe works at ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared wavelengths. Unlike visible light, ultraviolet and infrared light are hidden from the human eye, and we need special detectors to “see” them. They hold the secrets of primordial galaxies and the chemical composition of outer space, as well as nearby planets. The capabilities of the James Webb will take us beyond what we learned with Hubble by further opening our eyes to the infrared universe. We’ll be able to study how the universe looked at the beginning and determine when the first galaxies and stars formed. We will also be able to study how and where in our galaxy stars and planets are forming right now, and, for the first time, to study what the atmospheres of exoplanets are made of and how similar or different the atmospheres of exoplanets are from the atmospheres of planets in our own solar system.