What Nasa's $10bn 'time-travelling' telescope will tell us about life on other planets

The telescope, set to launch on December 18, can look back to the beginning of time

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Nasa is preparing to launch the world’s most advanced telescope, capable of looking back 13.5 billion years to see the first stars and galaxies of the universe and search for signs of life.

The James Webb Space Telescope, a $10 billion project that took 20 years to build, arrived at Kourou spaceport in South America for a launch on December 18.

Described as a time-travel machine, the space observatory is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, which for 31 years has made countless discoveries and provided millions of images of planets, galaxies, nebulas and stars.

Officials from the US, Europe and Canada’s space agencies and Arianespace – the company providing the launch vehicle – spoke about the mission at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai on Wednesday.

It’ll be like looking at baby pictures of that universe
Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa

“For us this is a historic moment that took 20 years to come. What we have not understood is what happened about 13.5 billion years ago, when a universe that was largely made out of protons and helium turned into something that made galaxies for the first time,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, science mission directorate associate administrator for Nasa.

“That’s what we’re going to observe. It’ll be like looking at baby pictures of that universe.”

The telescope has 10 new technologies that have not ever been used on any mission and some that were invented for James Webb.

Eighteen primary mirrors are built together in the shape of a honeycomb that measures 6.5 metres in diameter – six times bigger in area than Hubble’s.

To help reflect infrared light more efficiently, the mirror is covered with a thin coating of gold.

It will orbit the Sun and be placed in the Lagrange Point – a position in space that will allow the telescope to see deeper into the universe.

The space observatory’s cameras are so sensitive they can spot the heat signature of a bumblebee on the Moon's surface.

“We're full of dreams and expectations as to what we will see there about atmospheres that perhaps reflect the fact that on the planet, life starts arising,” Mr Zurbuchen said.

“That's the most amazing dream we have. These observations have never been done and we’re are going to see it.”

Launch preparations

Stephane Israel, the chief executive of Arianespace, said that they are “feeling the pressure” but are confident about the launch.

There have been 111 launches using the Ariane 5 rocket, 106 of which were successful. The launch vehicle has a success rate of 95.5 per cent.

Launch preparations are under way at the spaceport, including keeping the telescope safe from contamination.

It took two years to build a final assembly building at the launch site that would be used for two days before the launch to keep the telescope safe.

A tool to guide the fairing – the cone on top of the rocket where the telescope will be placed – during encapsulation has been built to protect the cargo.

The school bus-sized telescope, which measures 21 metres by 14.6 metres, will have to fold up to fit into the launch rocket.

Updated: October 28, 2021, 3:19 AM