Humans Can Now See the Exoplanets That We May One Day Call Home

NASA’s Webb Reveals Cosmic Cliffs, Glittering Landscape of Star Birth. Image – NASA

On July 12,  over two decades of arduous work and tremendous financial investment paid off when NASA and its international partners, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA)  and European Space Agency (ESA ), revealed the first near-infrared and mid-infrared images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

In a sweeping presentation [Click to View Video] that was distributed by NASA through its 24-hour-a-day streaming channel, scientists walked the world through the JWST’s first imaging data –  data gathered by the JWST during observational windows passing in just fractions of the time needed to gather much lower fidelity data by the telescope’s immediate predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.  JWST’s detection capabilities are so much more powerful than Hubble’s that in one promotional clip [Click to View Video], NASA said, somewhat hyperbolically, that the telescope could allow humans to understand the universe “beyond time itself.”

The CSA, ESA, and NASA tasked the major U.S. aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman to lead a far-flung assembly of subcontractors to produce the JWST.  Among the public and private subcontractors associated with the program, Ball Aerospace worked on control design and algorithms, optical design, mirrors, and wavefront sensing; the CSA worked on the fine guidance sensor with tunable filter module; the ESA worked on the near-IR spectrograph; Harris Corporation (now L3Harris) worked on optical telescope integration and testing; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and ESA collaborated on the mid-IR instrument; and the University of Arizona worked on the near-IR camera.

Now located at Lagrange Point 2 (L2), approximately a million miles from Earth, where it sits in stable orbit between our planet’s sun and ourselves, the JWST has cooled to cryogenic operating temperatures (the mid-IR instrument operates at -7K [-448F / -266C]) and humans have achieved the capability to time travel to a near imponderable point in the past.  With the universe thought to have aged approximately 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang event, the JWST can effectively take pictures of moments only several hundreds of million years later.

The number of galaxies now observable by humans has multiplied to a quantity that would “blow the minds” of our ancestors living only a hundred years ago, and probably many living today.  To even begin to discuss the objects observable by the JWST (maybe even the JWST itself) could have ended in execution 600 years ago.  But not only are galaxies observable by the JWST.  With the JWST’s astounding capabilities, scientists can now gather detailed information about exoplanets, planets orbiting stars many, many lightyears away.  We can now, with hereto impossible clarity, “see” the planets outside our solar system [Click to View Image]; planets that some might one day call home.

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About C. Zachary Hofer

In his role as a Senior Defense Electronics Analyst at Forecast International, C. Zachary Hofer's studies focus primarily on air, land, and sea radar systems, as well as the airborne electronics segment.

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