Exploring the Distant Past

The next monumental phase of deep space research is close at hand, the Middlesex community learned on February 12, when Dr. Kathryn Flanagan addressed the School during morning Assembly. A senior scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, Dr. Flanagan is among those responsible for the science operations of the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as the future mission and science operations of its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. Her visit was made possible through the generosity of a past parent, who established the Middlesex Speaker Series in Math and Science in 2015.

Though prepared to offer several presentations about the James Webb Space Telescope, Dr. Flanagan selected one topic for the morning Assembly and focused on how such a complex mechanism is designed. “If I want to see stars form, I have to be able to penetrate the veil,” she explained, referring to the atmospheric haze and interstellar dust that obscure astronomers’ ability to observe early planet, star, and galaxy formations. A large mirror to capture light is therefore essential for a powerful telescope, along with a sun shield to block out excess light, and infrared-sensitive instruments that can “peer through things that block visible light, making what was dark become luminous.”

Because the Webb’s mirror is too large to be launched at its full size, it has been designed in segments that will – amazingly – unfold and assemble in space. When complete, it will be the largest astrophysics project NASA has ever launched and a landmark international project as well, combining the resources of NASA with those of the European and Canadian Space Agencies. A specific launch date has not yet been announced, but it is anticipated to take place before the end of March 2021.

While the Hubble Telescope orbits a few hundred miles above the Earth, the James Webb Telescope will orbit one million miles out, three times further away than the Moon. At such a distance, astronomers look forward to examining the earliest phases of the universe, from the formation of the first galaxies to the development of our own solar system – and to learning more about potentially life-sustaining exoplanets.

In a scientific era that has already featured the detection of gravitational waves and confirmation of the Higgs boson, the James Webb Telescope is considered by many to be the next observatory that will revolutionize astronomy.  As Dr. Flanagan told students and faculty who joined her later for lunch, “It’s a great time to be alive.”