Interior Alaskans celebrated the upcoming launch of the James Webb Space Telescope on Saturday with a Zoom visit from a scientist and space-related family activities at the Nenana Public Library.
The rural library was one of only three sites in Alaska selected to hold a NASA-approved celebration for the telescope launch, newly rescheduled for Dec. 18.
Attendees included local Nenana families and even a Fairbanks resident whose son worked on electronics for the telescope through his work in California.
The telescope will be the largest ever placed in space, 100 times more powerful than the Hubble telescope. Its revolutionary technology will enable new exploration of the solar system to the most distant galaxies of the universe and everything in between.
“Each instrument on board plays a special role,” said researcher Andreas Faisst, who spoke from California via Zoom. The telescope will help scientists to study the first galaxies and stars.
One young Nenana resident had a very basic question for the space scientist: What is a galaxy?
“A galaxy is an island of stars in space,” said Faisst. “Each galaxy is made out of billions of stars. Our Milky Way is a galaxy, our home galaxy.
“Between galaxies is just empty space,” he added.
With billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, there is certainly the possibility of life on other planets, he noted.
“Maybe someone (on another planet) who is interested in science is maybe launching some telescopes,” he said. “We don’t know.”
He shared his excitement for space with the audience in rural Alaska.
Light from the moon needs just one second to reach Earth, he told the folks gathered in Nenana. Light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach Earth. Light from the closest star, besides the sun, needs four years to reach Earth.
“The closest galaxy needs 2.5 million years to reach us,” he said. “Looking at different galaxies at different distances, we can trace their evolution across cosmic time.”
The Hubble telescope helped scientists get closer to those first galaxies.
“How many more are out there,” Faisst said. “We want to study these in more detail.”
The telescope will allow this because of its sensitivity, enabled by a 21-foot-wide mirror, allowing more than six times the collection area for light; its resolution, allowing the telescope to find the smallest galaxies in the early universe; and its use of infrared, which will allow scientist to see galaxies farther away that have been undetectable to date.
The telescope will be the premiere observatory for the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide.
It is so big that is has to fold origami-style to fit in the rocket and will unfold like a transformer once in space. The five-layer tennis court-sized sunshield protects the telescope from the sun Earth and moon’s infrared radiation. It is like having sun protection of SPF 1 million, according to NASA.
The telescope was assembled in California and then moved by ship to French Guiana on the northeastern coast of South America. From there, it was driven to the launch site at Kourou, French Guiana for launch preparations.