Posted 25 December 2021 in Astronomy, News, Science, Space.

RHEA Group is celebrating the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb), which launched on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on 25 December 2021.

Designed to explore cosmic history and answer outstanding questions about the universe, the Webb is one of the most complex engineering space projects ever undertaken. RHEA engineers are supporting the mission with data collection and archiving at the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) near Madrid, Spain.

James Webb Space Telescope liftoff on Ariane 5 copyright ESA CNES Arianespace
© ESA / CNES / Arianespace

Today marks a significant milestone in space exploration as the successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope sees it begin its 1-month journey to its final orbit, 1.5 million kilometres from Earth.

The Webb is the largest telescope ever built. Its primary mirror measures 6.5 metres in diameter and has an area more than six times that of its predecessor, the Hubble Telescope, and it carries a suite of four state-of-the-art science instruments. The telescope’s observational capabilities will enable it to explore the first galaxies born after the Big Bang, providing data that could change our understanding of the universe. Scientists in Europe and elsewhere will be able to access this data from ESAC’s Science Data Centre (ESDC).

The mission is a collaboration between Europe, the US and Canada. As NASA is the lead partner, the Webb raw data is first transmitted to NASA’s team in Baltimore, USA, where it is transformed into science-ready data and then shared with ESAC and the Canadian Space Agency. ESDC’s crucial role will be to ease the search for the data that would make new discoveries possible.

RHEA engineers support the Webb mission at ESDC

Twenty-three RHEA engineers work at ESDC, providing services and tools to access and explore data from ESA’s space science missions (astronomy, planetary science and heliophysics). Among them are Maria Arevalo Sanchez and Javier Espinosa, who are part of the team managing the space science mission archives dedicated to the Webb. Maria said: “We collect the science-ready data and provide it, along with the right access, tools and services, including intuitive user interfaces, to our client, which is the global scientific community.”

Storing the huge amount of space mission data is becoming increasingly challenging for the software engineers. “The science archives are growing and growing. New space missions are becoming challenging in terms of storage and distribution,” explained Javier. It has been estimated that Webb will produce 1 petabyte of data over its 10-year mission: more than has been produced by the Hubble telescope.

The scientific community will have to wait until around 6 months after launch before the observation phase begins and science-ready data start to become available. Before then, engineers and scientists will check all the Webb instruments and perform observation tests.

About the Webb

  • The primary mirror is made of 18 hexagonal segments and measures 6.5 metres from side to side. (Hubble has a 2.4 metre diameter round mirror.)
  • The area of the primary mirror is just over 25 square metres.
  • The sunshield protecting the mirror is the size of a tennis court.
  • The four primary areas of astronomy for the Webb are: First Light and Reionization; the Assembly of Galaxies; the Birth of Stars and Protoplanetary Systems; and Planetary Systems and the Origin of Life.
  • The Webb will orbit around the second Lagrange point (L2), about 1.5 million kilometres from Earth.
  • The Webb cost US$8.8 billion to build, launch and commission. The cost of 5 years of operation will be US$860 million.

Main image: Artist’s view of James Webb Space Telescope on Ariane 5 rocket. © ESA / D. Ducros