The possibility of finding a second Earth for billions of years in the past and for future generations: all of this will soon be possible with a space telescope.
Scientists hope to look back at the early days of space after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. In pictures of stars that are older than our solar system and no longer exist.
There may even be evidence that the second Earth is a blue planet. With the launch of the planned James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in the fall, researchers are expecting completely new insights.
“It will open up tremendous new windows and new possibilities,” said Gunder Hasinger, science director at the European space agency ISA.
“James Webb” works at a distance of 1.5 million km
The start of the approximately $ 10 billion project by US and Canadian space agencies NASA and ISA has been repeatedly postponed.
Now a gigantic telescope, packed into a package, is set to climb into the Ariane launcher in the fall and fly much deeper into space than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, with its four infrared instruments. Has been in operation for over 30 years.
But this carries a risk: although the “Hubble” has been repaired and serviced several times by shuttle aircraft at an altitude of 500 km, this is no longer possible with the “James Webb Space Telescope” at a distance of 1.5 million km.
According to Hasinger, the telescope, which has 6.5 meters of glass and a tennis court sunshade, will have more than 130 unique mechanisms open. “It’s a very complicated game and it has to go on until everything comes out.” He compares it to a butterfly: “The caterpillar worms come out, and then the pupa breaks and the butterfly spreads.”
The first films expected from July 2022
This process begins on the way to the goal. “There are five points in the solar system in which gravity cancels each other out,” Hussinger says. The goal is one of them. There, instruments can start their measurements at different infrared waves as the earth and sun are protected from heat radiation behind them and in the awning.
For this they are cooled somewhat. “This will be the first cold telescope. If you want to measure heat-emitting infrared rays, the telescope itself must be very cold,” says Hasinger.
The first exams take seven months. Husinger hopes the first films will probably be seen in July. Developed jointly by the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, it is a combination of camera and spectrograph that is sensitive enough to detect the burning of a candle on a Jupiter moon.
“Dense molecular clouds with more dust and gas form new stars and planets. However, dust absorbs light that we are familiar with, so it is difficult or impossible for us to study their interior in detail,” said Glass Jagger of the Max Planck Institute.
Dust is a very small barrier to long wave infrared light. “Infrared observations allow you to see these areas or receive infrared radiation from inside.”
According to Hasinger, an in-depth study of the early expanding universe and search for regions of star formation are planned with the telescope. “But most of the observation time goes out to the solar planets.”
The telescope for molecules representing biological activity can explore the atmosphere of such extraterrestrials. “Whether it succeeds or not, of course, depends on whether we find the right planets.”
Evidence of Earth-like planets
The strength of the telescope lies in its spectral structure – that is, you can pick up a chemical fingerprint from any point in the sky. “A picture is beautiful to look at. What we get through” James Web “is that we can read 1000 other information in each image element,” says Husinger.
For example, is water even possible anywhere? The planets closest to Earth are definitely interesting. “At some point you want to find an Earth-like planet as close as possible and the water will be there and close enough for future generations to fly there.”
So let’s look at an Earth 2. The telescope can “classify whether there is oxygen or ozone or other possible biological molecules”. This is possible 1000 light years away. In terms of dimension: A light year describes the distance light travels in a year – about 9.5 trillion kilometers. At a distance of about 150 million kilometers from the sun, it takes about eight minutes for light to reach the earth.
The telescope helps to see the past
NASA’s Director of Science Thomas Surbuchen said in early June that the first galaxies to form after the Big Bang should be seen with a telescope. Accordingly, it should provide a glimpse into the past 13.5 billion years ago – far behind its predecessor “Hubble”.
“It will show us something very new and we will fold our ears,” Hussinger said. “James Web” works in infrared, “Hubble” optical and ultraviolet range. It would be best if Hubble worked as consistently as possible. “Because you get the whole ribbon of the rainbow.”
Husinger expects the lifespan of the telescope named after former NASA boss James Edwin Webb to be ten years. Then he will run out of fuel. NASA initially expects to spend about $ 500 million on the project, which has been under construction for about 25 years. “Scientists and engineers at the time were very miscalculated,” Hasinger says.
For Hussinger, however, the benefits of the $ 10 billion plan are obvious. “People are interested and always try to understand everything in their environment.” The question is, where are we coming from and where are we going. “How did the universe form, how did it grow further? How did the galaxy, the solar system, and life form?”
Jagger says: “In my opinion, one thing is already certain and an experience from many milestone projects: with” JWST “we will make unquestionable discoveries!”
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