James Webb Space Telescope’s first instrument ready for NASA

10 May 2012

Scientists and engineers in a clean room at the Science and Technology Facilities Council's (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory with a model of the MIRI instrument. Image by STFC

A European consortium has completed the first instrument for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the infrared space observatory that’s set to blast into space in 2018 to find the first galaxies that formed in the early universe.

The telescope, which is tipped to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency. It was named after the NASA administrator James Webb who crafted the Apollo programme.

JWST will be the largest infrared scientific telescope so far flown to space when it lifts off in 2018 aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

NASA has indicated that Webb will have the capacity to penetrate through dusty clouds to see stars forming planetary systems connecting the Milky Way to our own solar system.

The telescope will be poised about four times further from Earth than the moon. It will reside in an orbit of about 1.6m kilometres from our planet.

Artist's conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA

Artist’s conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Image by NASA

According to NASA, the telescope will have a large mirror that will be 6.5 metres in diameter, and a sunshield the size of a tennis court.

Now a European consortium, which includes the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, has completed the first instrument for JWST called MIRI, a mid-infrared camera and spectrograph.

The instrument was yesterday handed over to the ESA at a ceremony in London. It will now head to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the US.

The ESA said the handover came at the end of a rigorous testing and calibration phase during which MIRI proved it can deliver cutting-edge science.

In all, the James Webb Space Telescope will carry four instruments, including MIRI.

The scientists involved in creating the MIRI instrument for JWST said the instrument will operate at infrared wavelengths and at temperature of -266°C – just 7°C above absolute zero.

They said the low temperatures will be required to keep the instrument’s own infrared emission from overwhelming the faint signals from astronomical targets of interest in the distant universe.

“It is an immensely challenging project, but together with our US and Canadian colleagues, European scientists and engineers have successfully risen to the challenge and are now delivering key parts of JWST to NASA,” said Prof Mark McCaughrean, head of ESA’s research and scientific support department.

The ESA will also now lead the development of another of JWST’s instruments, the NIRSpec, a near-infrared spectrograph. The space agency said this instrument will be capable of obtaining spectra of more than 100 galaxies or stars simultaneously to study star formation and chemical abundances of young distant galaxies.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic