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James Webb telescope in outer space

James Webb: The 'time-travelling' space telescope

James Webb telescope in outer space | Image: Shutterstock

In this guest article, Sarah Cruddas, co-star of Craig Charles: UFO Conspiracies, looks at James Webb, a space telescope that can help us travel 13.5 billion years into the past.

James Webb Space Telescope

Nestled a million miles from Earth in an area of space with a name that could have easily been taken straight from the science fiction book, sits the James Webb Space Telescope. The largest and most powerful space-based telescope ever built, it is set to transform our understanding of the universe and our place within it.

James Webb’s home is L2, one of five areas in space known as Lagrange Points, where the gravity of the Sun and the Earth balance the orbital motion of a satellite. This essentially locks the telescope in a perfect union with the Earth.

Studying our universe, not optically, but through infra-red (heat radiation) – the L2 location means both the Sun and the Earth are in the same direction – provides James Webb with the best location for a sunshield. This keeps the telescope cold (to the tune of -225 degrees C), something which is needed for the infra-red observations, as well as being a location that provides unimpeded views of our universe.

Its mission is to examine every phase of our cosmic history. From the first luminous glows of the Big Bang – which created you and me and everything which exists in this impossible vast universe – to the formation of galaxies, stars and planets and the evolution of our solar system.

Somewhat of a time travel machine for our own existence, James Webb will provide us with an understanding of our distant past. Because of the vast and impossibly comprehensible distances of the universe, when we observe faraway objects, we observe them not as they are, but as they were. For example, if aliens far enough away were to study Earth in this way, they wouldn’t see us, but instead, dinosaurs stomping around.

With a telescope as powerful as James Webb, that journey will take us 13.5 billion years into the past, to a time when the first stars and galaxies formed out of the dark abyss of the early universe. It will also be able to compare these faint early galaxies to the grand elliptical and spiral galaxies we see today. Helping us to understand how galaxies formed over billions of years.

Sarah Cruddas
Sarah Cruddas stands in front of the James Webb telescope

James Webb’s infra-red capabilities – unlike the Hubble space telescope which looked back optically – will see through vast waves of gas and dust where stars and planetary systems are formed. This will provide a new understanding of the worlds which exist beyond our own solar system and how they are born. It will also give us more details of the atmospheres of these extrasolar worlds, and perhaps even detect the building blocks of life on other planets.

In the grandeur of the cosmos, our Earth is but a speck. Significant to us, but indescribably tiny on a cosmic scale. James Webb represents a new step forward as we cast off from our Earthly quayside into the cosmic ocean – in much the same way that our ancestors in the Age of Exploration sailed into the unknown.

A new way of stepping into the void beyond our home, at the limits of current technology, on the next milestone of a search to understand what lies beyond what we can currently comprehend - driven by the same indescribable urge that caused our ancestors to explore. And just like them, we cannot begin to predict what we will discover. Those first images from James Webb – as they begin to come this year – will be far stranger than we can possibly imagine.

While we will likely never know the answer to all that is beyond us in our lifetime, or why it is that we exist, James Webb and the team of scientists and engineers that operate it, will enable us to edge closer to the origins of all that there is, turning much of what we currently know on its head.