At 11:20pm Christmas Eve, there will be family gatherings, kids sleeping and anxiously waiting for what gifts may appear in the morning.
For astronomers all around the world, our eyes will be looking towards French Guiana in South America, where NASA's new space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch.
The James Webb was envisioned as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in 1990, the Hubble has been the most popular telescope of astronomers, with a giant list of huge discoveries. The Space Shuttle serviced the Hubble Space Telescope four times, which allowed for upgrades, improvements, and fixing it to keep it going for over 30 years.
However, once the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, it became inevitable that the Hubble Space Telescope would eventually die. Knowing this was the future, a replacement, originally dubbed the Next Generation Space Telescope, was proposed back in 1996.
James Webb was the second administrator of NASA, overseeing the program from 1961 to 1968. Webb was in charge during the Apollo era and the resurgence of the US in the space race with the USSR while also establishing science as a core mission of NASA. This was era of NASA that made it what it is today.
However, this name has been a bit controversially, due to James Webb being alleged to have participated in the discrimination of homosexual employees in the US government.
After the James Webb Space Telescope is launched on Christmas Eve, it will have a long journey. It will not go into low Earth orbit, which is around 200 - 1000 kilometers above the Earth where most of our satellites, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station, are located. It is headed to a special spot, called L2, or Lagrange Point 2.
In space, Lagrange points are pockets where the gravitational force or pull of two objects is even, meaning you can nominally keep a spacecraft nearly parked in a spot. Imagine a space version of tug of war where both teams are equal, and the middle of the rope doesn't move. The sun and Earth form these, which means the satellite is not pulled towards the Earth or the sun.
It also has the advantage of being far away from the Earth, meaning the Earth doesn't interfere as much. L2 is about 1.5 million kilometres away from Earth, much further than the 540 kilometres orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The James Webb Space Telescope will be much bigger than Hubble. In astronomy, telescopes are measured by how big the mirror is. The bigger the mirror, the fainter light that we can see. Telescopes are essentially light buckets. While the Hubble Space Telescope mirror is 2.4 metres wide, the James Webb Space Telescope is 6.5 metres wide.
It will also see slightly different colours of light than Hubble, allowing us to see different objects, and other objects in different light. It will open up a new way of seeing the universe.
It is the most exciting Christmas gift for astronomers, who have been patiently waiting decades to play with it.
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