UPDATE: The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope has been postponed until at least Friday, Dec. 24, 2021. Visit the telescope's website for continued updates: https://jwst.nasa.gov/content/webbLaunch/countdown.html
When the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope launches into space atop an Ariane 5 rocket on Dec. 22, Utah State University physics professor J.R. Dennison will be among those eagerly watching. Never mind it will be three days before Christmas, the USU campus will be largely empty and the hour will be well before Utah’s sunrise.
“And I won’t be alone,” said Dennison, faculty member in USU’s Department of Physics and leader of the USU Materials Physics Group, which tested the effects of the harsh space environment on materials for the orbiting observatory’s development. “Students from the USU chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering (SAMPE) have organized a public watch party on campus to celebrate this phenomenal event. We hope everyone interested in the project will join us.”
All are invited to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Launch Watch Party, beginning at an eye-opening 4:30 a.m., in the Eccles Science Learning Center Emert Auditorium, Room ESLC 130, on the USU campus. Guests will view the Ariane 5 rocket launch scheduled for 5:20 a.m. Mountain Time, broadcast live via NASA TV from Europe’s Spaceport near Kourou, French Guiana. The watch party will also be accessible online via Zoom.
Prior to the party, in-person and online participants are invited to submit questions. Coordinators will endeavor to answer during the Dec. 22 gathering.
“We’re excited to be a part of this historic adventure,” said USU undergraduate researcher Crystal Tingle, who is coordinating the event as a member of USU’s SAMPE Chapter.
A dual physics and mechanical and aerospace engineering major, Tingle acknowledges the JWST project is older than she is.
“I first heard about it in high school and I’m fascinated by its potential capabilities,” says the Philippines native, who graduated from Layton’s Northern Utah Academy of Math, Engineering and Science (NUAMES) in 2018.
Tingle earned certification in composite material technology from Utah’s Davis Technical College and that, coupled with her interest in the James Webb Space Telescope, led her to the USU Materials Physics Group lab. She’s participated in research on space materials with Dennison for the past year and a half and her current project involves testing varied composites for NASA’s upcoming Gateway Lunar Orbit Outpost.
“I definitely envision a career in materials science, especially in the area of spacecraft materials,” said Tingle, who received an Asian American merit scholarship to support her undergraduate studies.
The Gateway materials testing project is just one of nearly 30 NASA-funded Science Fleet endeavors the Materials Physics Group has been awarded in the past three decades. Testing materials for the James Webb Space Telescope was one of the group’s most extensive projects. The infrared observatory is expected, its creators hope, to yield unprecedented images of the universe’s first galaxies, as well as up-close views of exoplanets and their atmospheres.
“The telescope’s huge mirrors, which dwarf those of the current Hubble Telescope, are made from gold-coated beryllium,” Dennison said. “Gold is an exceptionally good refractor in the infrared spectrum, which will be the JWST’s focus. Gold is also resistive to corrosion and oxidation, and can be applied in very thin layers.”
Tightly packed into the 5.7-meter-diameter nosecone of the Ariane rocket, the JWST, once in space, will unfold like an origami creation into its more than 80-foot-long by 25-foot-wide finished design – about the size of a tennis court.
“Nothing on this scale has been attempted before,” Dennison said. “It’s a complex engineering marvel and there are thousands of potential points of failure. Watching it deploy in space will definitely be a nailbiter.”
Unlike the Hubble, a reflector telescope sees primarily visible light, JWST is designed to look at the universe in a much broader spectrum of light and yield sharper images of more distant objects.
“The launch may seem like the culmination of the many years leading to JWST’s development, but it’s really just the beginning of an incredible scientific experiment,” Dennison said. “The cool stuff is just getting ready to start and it’s going to blow our collective minds.”
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