James Webb Telescope Unfolds in Space

The much delayed space telescope finally has lift off, helping us to view the universe like never before.
07 January 2022

Interview with 

Matt Bothwell, University of Cambridge


Artist's impression of the James Webb Telescope


The James Webb telescope has just been launched into space. Chris Smith interviews the University of Cambridge's star public astronomer Matt Bothwell about what the telescope is and what information we hope to gain from its production & successful launch...

Chris Smith - Now, on Christmas day, you may well have been tucking into your turkey dinners, but, in South American space, scientists had some much bigger fish to fry.

James Webb Launch clip - (in french) 5. 4. 3. 2. 1. Lift off

NASA commentator - Lift off. From a tropical rainforest to the edge of time itself, James Webb begins a voyage back to the birth of the universe.

Chris Smith - Now that was NASA's coverage of the launch of its Arian-5 rocket that was carrying the $10 billion James Webb space telescope which, we are told, will enable us to see the universe like never before. Here to tell us what is in store for us is the University of Cambridge's public astronomer and author Matt Bothwell. Matt, was it Turkey for you or telescope? Were you watching it?

Matt - I was watching; it was all about the telescope for me. I was glued to the TV and, to everyone that was passing by, I was frantically showing them the exciting things happening. It was amazing. Did you watch it?

Chris Smith - I was enjoying my turkey too much. But it did get off the ground.

Matt - It did and it got off the ground absolutely beautifully. I think one thing that me along with all the other astronomers in the world were hoping for was a really successful launch, because the more fuel remaining for James Webb, the longer its potential lifespan. It turned out that the launch went so perfectly, it's going to massively exceed its 10 year lifespan. We're going to get a very long time of exploring the Universe with James Webb.

Chris Smith - How does it work? And what's it actually going to do?

Matt - The telescope is an infrared telescope, so it gets compared to the Hubble space telescope quite a lot. I think a better comparison with it is the Spitzer space telescope. It's a bit less well known, but it is an infrared telescope that's going to be taking photos of the universe in these long wavelengths of light. The difference between James Webb and Hubble is that James Webb is much further away, while Hubble is orbiting around the earth. James Webb is going to be beyond the moon, about 1.5 million kilometres away, where it's nice and cold and dark to get this very good infrared view of the universe. It's going to spend 10 years or more exploring all kinds of things from the atmospheres of exo-planets to the first stars that switched on in the universe.

Chris Smith - There's no risk of it being broken? Its predecessor, the Hubble, was launched and then, unfortunately, it was discovered to have some flaws that required a space walk to fix. We don't think that's going to happen here?

Matt - Hopefully that won't happen. I wish there was no risk of it being broken. Unfortunately, James Webb has an awful lot of potential failure points that might end up with a non-working telescope. The problem is, of course, it being so far away and not orbiting around the Earth: there's no chance to fix it. Luckily, at the time of recording, about 75% of all the risk involved in James Webb's deployment has been passed with flying colours. We are well on the way to a perfectly working telescope, but we're not out of the woods just yet.

Chris Smith - Speaking of working, when are we going to start to see data come back, some images that we can analyse?

Matt - It's going to be a little while to be honest. So James Webb is going to spend the next few months cooling down to operating temperature and then hopefully, by spring or summer 2022, we'll start to get some nice, pretty pictures back.

Chris Smith - And what are the big questions they'll be asking with it?

Matt - James Webb has a few different science goals. One of them is to explore the atmospheres of exoplanets and look for various things including what we call 'biomarkers'. These are signatures for potential organic processes going on in these exoplanets. Another one, which is very near and dear to my heart as it's my own research area, is the study of very, very ancient galaxies that existed early in the universe. James Webb is designed to see some of the first stars that ever lit up the dark in the cosmos. It's something we've never seen before. All kinds of things that are just completely on the cutting edge. It's all incredibly exciting.

Chris Smith - Well, let's see when we get you back this time next year; you can tell us what has been seen so far. It's a pleasure to have you on the program. Thank you very much, Matt Bowell, Cambridge University's public astronomer.


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