NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is nearing its final destination about a million miles away, and in Baltimore, scientists and engineers are working to make sure that happens smoothly.
Staff at the Space Telescope Science Institute nestled on Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood Campus have described the last several weeks as “exciting,” “wild,” and “phenomenal.”
“I think the amount of pride, I can’t describe it,” said Yong Taing, an information technology specialist from Hampden working on the project. “It’s something that I was just so excited about and have broadcasted that enthusiasm wide and far throughout on social media.”
On Dec. 25, NASA launched Webb, its largest and most powerful scientific instrument, into space.
Last week the telescope finished unfolding its array of mirrors, designed to take in infrared light, and began testing and tuning instruments.
“I got to say, it’s just shocking how efficient and how successful the mission has been so far,” said Ori Fox, a scientist on the mid-infrared instrument team, one of four instruments on the telescope.
Fox said engineers always anticipate snags, but the process has run smoothly.
Mission control was handed over to the institute in Baltimore at minute 29, and that felt special, according to Taing.
“In Baltimore, we have gone through a lot, and the Webb has gone through a lot. There were times when Webb almost got scrubbed, because there were delays, and we limped along. We pulled out a little miracle. It’s a great comeback story,” he said. “Baltimore is very parallel to that type of story arc. We have endured a lot, and we have a great chance to reset the perspective.”
“The fact that so many of our team members and colleagues live in Hampden, Remington and Charles Village. We live and work here and there’s a tremendous amount of pride that we have,” Taing continued. “I’ve been kind of like the biggest cheerleader for Baltimore.”
Taing was so excited about the launch and his work on the project, he commemorated it with a shoulder tattoo.
“Webb launched on Christmas, so I got it done the week after Christmas,” he said. “I was supposed to get it done the week before launch, but of course there were delays.”
The Space Telescope Science Institute has received and processed data from the Hubble Space Telescope for years, according to spokesperson Christine Pulliam.
Unlike Hubble, which is commanded from Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, NASA’s new Webb telescope, which is about 10 times larger than Hubble and about 100 times more powerful, will be managed right here at the institute.
“I think it is a huge source of pride. The Webb is the biggest telescope in astronomy right now, and a number of different NASA contractors could have potentially won that to run the Webb, but Space Telescope won that contract.”
Fox is a D.C. resident, but has been commuting north for years.
“I have a lot of close family in Baltimore, and I know Baltimore practically as well as I know DC,” he said. “I love the contrast between the two.”
Fox said the Baltimore community’s support for the mission highlighted to him the spirit of the city. He pointed to support from Peabody Heights Brewery’s special edition Astrodino pale ale which for a limited time featured the James Webb telescope on its cans.
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The Webb will continue traveling to the Earth second Lagrange point (known as L2), a location 930,000 miles in the opposite direction of the sun that allows the telescope’s rotation to be in sync with that of Earth.
It is scheduled to arrive Jan 23.
Fox described the Webb’s primary mission as a lookback to the infancy of the universe.
“The main goal for the Webb is to detect the very first stars and galaxies,” he said.
The telescopes infrared sensors will take in data from the very edges of the universe.
“The other really big, exciting thing for the Webb is the potential to detect bio-signatures on Earth-like planets outside of our solar system,” he said.
NASA has identified planets that could have all the right conditions for life, and the Webb will give scientists a much better idea of what’s on those distant planets.
All that data will then be processed at the Space Telescope Science Institute, and it’s a complicated process to untangle it.
“When you see the raw data, you can’t even see a star. It is so noisy. It’s in a weird format. All sorts of weird things are going on, and you have to process the data. That can take hours to run for a given night,” Fox said.
And it doesn’t stop there. After the data is processed, then it needs an analysis, he said.
“There’s about 30 steps in that pipeline and then they produce the final piece of data, and then that data goes into the analysis tools that I’m working on,” he said. “To give people an idea of how bright something is, what the shape is, all sorts of very detailed analysis techniques that we use in astronomy.”
The first images from Webb won’t likely be available until sometime this summer. Even after the telescope arrives at L2 it’ll be calibrating and testing the components on board.
“That’s something that connects us in a very positive way that’s pro-knowledge, pro-science, pro-humanity,” said Taing. “This is before we even get any of the yield of its observations. It’s going to be a huge event when we get that first image from James Webb and for Baltimore to be in that spotlight.”