Super Telescope: Mission To The Edge Of The Universe

Thursday: Super Telescope: Mission To The Edge Of The Universe - (BBC Two, 9pm)

On Christmas Day last year, the James Webb Space Telescope left Earth on its mission to show the first stars to light up the universe.

Named after one of the architects of the Apollo Moon landings, the state-of-the-art infrared observatory is the successor to Hubble, and was put on a path to its station some 1.5million kilometres from Earth.

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Its primary goal is to see the first stars and galaxies to form in the universe and solve some of the mysteries in our solar system.

James Webb Space Telescope at Northrop Grumman facility, Redondo Beach, Los Angeles

In addition, as its instruments are so sensitive, it could also be the first telescope to detect signs of life on a distant planet.

The launch certainly got the scientific world excited, including physicist Professor Brian Cox.

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He says: “If you want to look far out in the universe, which means far, far back in time, then the further out you look, the further back in time you go and the further the light is stretched, so the Webb is able to look at the formation of the first stars and the first galaxies.”

As NASA prepares to release the first images from the JWST this summer, this special Horizon film tells the story of the telescope’s complicated and fascinating construction, in the words of the engineers who built it and the astronomers who will use it over the next 20 years.

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The programme will also attempt predict and explain the extraordinary new views of our universe that Webb will be unveiling in the coming days, weeks, months and years.

With its enlarged optics and super-sensitive instruments, James Webb is by far the most technically advanced telescope ever built.

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It has a 6.5m-wide golden mirror, three times wider than Hubble’s, has a sunshield the size of a tennis court, is double the mass of its predecessor, and is 100 times more powerful.

It will look up to 300 million years further back in time than Hubble, to an era about 100-250 million years after the Big Bang.

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From its conception way back in the late 1980s, JWST’s construction posed a huge technical challenge, and the telescope was seen as a $10billion gamble on the skill of its engineering team.

As such, there was a great deal of anxiety when the observatory was lifted skyward by an Ariane rocket from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana in December.

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It was the first telescope designed to unfold in space – Webb had to unpack itself, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, from the folded configuration it adopted at launch.

It was a complicated two-week operation and all 178 release devices – 107 of them on the telescope’s sunshield alone – had to work perfectly for it to unfold.

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If just one failed, the telescope could have become nothing more than a giant piece of space junk.

Thankfully, it was reported in April that James Webb had indeed unfolded and was fully focused and aligned, with light bouncing perfectly off its mirrors to form pin-sharp imagery in all four of its instruments.

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Now, as long as the instruments are properly calibrated and delivering their data in a way that’s expected, James Webb will be ready to wow us with vistas that will be every bit as compelling as those provided by Hubble over the past three decades.