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James Webb Space Telescope to undergo 93-Day Big Freeze

Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

James Webb Space Telescope cooling off for the summer

On July 11, the James Webb Space Telescope began a 93-day series of tests in an enormous thermal vacuum chamber at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The thermal vacuum chamber will be set at a chilling 37 Kelvin or minus 236 degrees Celsius to simulate the extreme conditions in space. These tests will prove that the telescope can withstand those bitter cold temperatures in space.

Once in space, the telescope's highly sensitive instruments will need to be kept extremely cold to be able to detect the infrared light from very faint, distant celestial objects. An huge five-layer sunshield will help protect the observatory from all potential sources of light and heat, like the sun, Earth, and moon and even the heat generated by its own spacecraft.

Canada contributions include Webb's Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) and one of the telescope's four science instruments: the Near-InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS).

The FGS is made up of two identical cameras that will act as Webb's eyes. The images they supply will allow the Webb space telescope to determine its position, zero in on celestial targets, and optimize its ability to acquire valuable data.

NIRISS will strive to find the earliest and most distant objects in the Universe's history and help uncover the atmospheric composition of exoplanets.

When the tests in the thermal vacuum chamber are complete, Webb will be shipped to Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense technology company, for final assembly and environmental testing with spacecraft and sunshield. Finally, it will be loaded on a boat destined for French Guiana for the launch in October 2018.

The James Webb Space Telescope

Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

Swarms of distant galaxies and nearby habitable worlds: prime targets for the James Webb Space Telescope's Canadian science team

In June 2017, NASA announced some of the targets the Canadian science team will observe using the James Webb Space Telescope approximately six months after its October 2018 launch.

Using the Canadian-built instrument, the Near-InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), Canadian astronomers will study a wide variety of celestial bodies. The astronomers will aim Webb at distant galaxy clusters to study thousands of galaxies, peering back in time into the history of the universe when the very first ones were formed. The astronomers will also explore the atmospheres of a dozen nearby exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system), including several Earth-size that could potentially have conditions favourable for life on their surface.

Canadian astronomers will be allocated observation time on the massive space observatory in return for the Canadian Space Agency's contribution to the Webb telescope. In addition to the NIRISS, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is contributing the Webb's Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS). Both were designed, built and tested for the CSA by Honeywell (formerly COM DEV International) in Ontario, with technical contributions from the Université de Montréal, Mont-Mégantic Observatory, the National Research Council Canada and scientific guidance from the FGS science team.

Testing the James Webb Space Telescope's primary mirror

Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

The James Webb Space Telescope's Sunshield

Credit: Northrop Grumman

Construction of the James Webb Space Telescope is now complete!

On October 31, NASA completed the construction of the James Webb Space Telescope by adding the final layer of the telescope's gigantic sunshield. The sunshield is made of five layers, each as thin as a human hair, that will block out heat from the sun and help keep the telescope's science instruments cool.

Extensive testing has now begun on the telescope to prove that it will work in space. On November 2, NASA conducted the first of several tests of the Webb's giant primary mirror to ensure its integrity and accuracy.

Next, the observatory will be put through tests that simulate the rigours of launch, after which the mirror will be tested again to compare the results and see if there are any changes or damage.