The James Webb Space Telescope will reveal the secrets of the universe

Dec 24, 2021, 9:12 AM
James Webb Space Telescope...
Originally Published: 24 DEC 21 07:23 ET
Updated: 24 DEC 21 10:52 ET

    (CNN) — We’re about to have eyes on the invisible side of space.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the premier space observatory of the next decade when it launches Saturday. The telescope is expected to launch Saturday morning from French Guiana and live coverage will be available on NASA’s website beginning at 6 a.m. ET.

In addition to investigating the wealth of planets outside of our solar system, the observatory will peer back to some of the earliest galaxies that formed after the Big Bang and the very structure of the universe itself.

Webb will act as an infrared sleuth, detecting light that is invisible to us and revealing otherwise hidden regions of space.

The Webb telescope will look at every phase of cosmic history, including the first glows after the Big Bang that created our universe and the formation of the galaxies, stars and planets that fill it today. Its capabilities will enable the observatory to answer questions about our own solar system and investigate faint signals from the first galaxies formed 13.5 billion years ago.

“We can currently see galaxies back to 500 million to 600 million years post-Big Bang, nearly 13 billion years ago,” said Marcia Rieke, a Regents Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona‘s Steward Observatory and principal investigator for the Near Infrared Camera on the Webb telescope.

So far, what scientists have observed from this time period looks similar to what we already understand.

“However, logic dictates that at some point during the first few hundred million years, these familiar-looking objects must have come from somewhere and evolved,” Rieke said. “After all, galaxies don’t spring up from nothing, virtually overnight.”

The infrared camera on Webb could reveal the faint first light from galaxies as they formed during the infancy of the universe.

As the universe expands, these faraway galaxies are moving away from us so rapidly that their wavelengths of light become stretched out until the point that they are only faintly visible in infrared light, Rieke said.

Origins of the universe and how it evolved

With Webb’s capabilities, researchers should be able to get four times closer to the Big Bang than the Hubble Space Telescope, she said. Hubble observed the universe 450 billion years after the Big Bang.

Marcia Rieke’s husband George Rieke, a Regents Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, is also working on Webb as the science team lead for the telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument. This instrument will allow Webb to look even farther across the infrared spectrum.

Each space telescope builds on the knowledge gained from the previous one. In the case of Webb, its mirror is nearly 60 times larger than previous space telescopes, including the retired Spitzer Space Telescope. The observatory also improves on the sensitivity and resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Collecting infrared observations from space prevents interference created by the heat from our planet and its atmosphere.

The spacecraft includes a five-layer sunshield that will unfurl to reach the size of a tennis court. It will protect Webb’s giant mirror and instruments from the sun’s heat because they need to be kept at a very frigid negative 370 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 188 degrees Celsius) to operate.

“This is really exciting that we’re going to be looking at things that were just completely out of reach before,” George Rieke said.

Key questions about the universe can be answered when scientists have access to data from different wavelengths of light.

“Excitement in astronomy in the last 70 years has been looking at different wavelengths,” George Rieke said. “Before that, all astronomy was done in optical (visible light) and looking at the universe in optical is like going to the symphony concert and only listening to one note. Now, we’ve got the whole symphony.”

Observations by Webb could confirm or entirely upend predictions and ideas that scientists have about the origin of the universe and how it evolved.

“We want to know, how did we get here from the Big Bang?” said John Mather, NASA’s senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. “We want to look at those first galaxies growing. There are dark areas of dust skewing our view of those earliest times when the stars are growing, but we can see them with infrared.”

Understanding why distant galaxies are so different from those closer to our own Milky Way galaxy would help fill a critical knowledge gap.

“We have this 13.8 billion year story of the universe, and we’re missing a few key paragraphs in the very first chapter of the story,” said Amber Straughn, an astrophysicist and Webb deputy project scientist for communications at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

“What we’re really trying to do here is is figure out how to pull those pieces of the story together and learn more about that whole process.”

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Today’s Top Stories

View of a wooden Nativity Scene on display at the Christmas Market on the Main Market Square in Kra...
AJ Willingham, CNN

Nativity sets are getting a minimalist makeover

Brooklyn Swenson, an artist in Utah, says she drew on this inspiration for her brightly colored minimalist nativity set.
8 hours ago
Pfeifferhorn Avalanche...
Alexandrea Bonilla

Utah Avalanche Awareness Week is underway

To promote safety while recreating at Utah's ski resorts, the Utah Avalanche Center is holding it's fourth annual Avalanche Awareness Week.
8 hours ago
Kaylee Goncalves, Ethan Chapin, Xana Kernodle and Madison Mogen were killed off campus at the Unive...
Michelle Watson and Chris Boyette, CNN

Letters from surviving roommates read at church memorial service for slain University of Idaho students

Originally Published: 04 DEC 22 19:04 ET     (CNN) — At a memorial service for four University of Idaho students who were found stabbed to death last month, a pastor from an Idaho church read aloud letters from the surviving roommates, recalling their memories of their friends and sharing their sadness. Related: ‘Sketched out’ University of […]
8 hours ago
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 10: Sesame Street cast member and film subject Bob McGrath attends a ...
Dan Heching and Chris Boyette, CNN

Bob McGrath, original ‘Sesame Street’ cast member, dead at 90

Bob McGrath, an original cast member of "Sesame Street," has died, according to statements from his family and Sesame Workshop.
8 hours ago
  Elon Musk attends The 2022 Met Gala Celebrating "In America: An Ant...
Ramishah Maruf, CNN

Elon Musk speaks out on ‘Twitter Files’ release detailing platform’s inner workings

Originally Published: 04 DEC 22 09:38 ET     (CNN) — Twitter owner Elon Musk spoke out on Saturday evening about the so-called “Twitter Files,” a long tweet thread posted by journalist Matt Taibbi, who had been provided with details about behind-the-scenes discussions on Twitter’s content moderation decision-making, including the call to suppress a 2020 New York […]
1 day ago
bomb threat Utah Tech...
Devin Oldroyd

Utah Tech student dies after falling from fifth-story balcony

A Utah Tech University student is dead after falling from a fifth-story balcony early Sunday morning. The death appears to be accidental.
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...

5 game day snacks for the whole family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...

The best tools for Deaf and hard-of-hearing workplace success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
christmas decorations candles in glass jars with fir on a old wooden table...
Western Nut Company

12 Mason Jar Gift Ideas for the 12 Days of Christmas [with recipes!]

There are so many clever mason jar gift ideas to give something thoughtful to your neighbors or friends. Read our 12 ideas to make your own!
wide shot of Bear Lake with a person on a stand up paddle board...

Pack your bags! Extended stays at Bear Lake await you

Work from here! Read our tips to prepare for your extended stay, whether at Bear Lake or somewhere else nearby.
young boy with hearing aid...

Accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing

These different types of accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing can help them succeed in school.
The James Webb Space Telescope will reveal the secrets of the universe