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Arizona astronomers queue up to use the new James Webb Space Telescope

Engineers in white bunny suits lift an enormous gold-colored mirror made of hexagonal shapes and bearing the NASA logo inside an industrial building
NASA/Desiree Stover
Engineers lift the gold-covered mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA intends to launch the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope into orbit on Saturday. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports on how Arizona astronomers plan to use the $10-billion observatory.

Engineers began building the seven-ton telescope almost two decades ago. It’s famous for being overbudget and long delayed.

But Audrey Martin of Northern Arizona University says the delays gave her time to start her Ph.D. research and write a successful proposal for 25 hours of telescope time. “For a lot of objects that I’m particularly interested in, which are really small and really dark and really cold… there’s no telescope we can use to observe those objects in the mid infrared wavelength region,” she explains. James Webb has that capability, which allows astronomers to examine the composition and chemistry of objects.

Martin plans to study Trojan asteroids which orbit near Jupiter, while Will Grundy of Lowell Observatory will look at icy satellites in the outer solar system. “We’re going to learn a lot more about their early history, and whether they’re still geologically active today, are there still oceans on the inside that are occasionally erupting material to the surface, that kind of thing,” Grundy says.

The telescope will also turn its sights on distant galaxies and planets that orbit other stars. “You have something that big in space, so you don’t have to look through the atmosphere, you can look clearly at things,” says NAU astronomer Josh Emery. “Just across the domains of astronomy, James Webb is going to be remarkable.”

It’ll be about six months after launch before observations can begin. The telescope will unfold its massive mirror and sunshade while in space, and head for an orbit a million miles beyond Earth.

“It’s really a nail-biter right now,” Grundy says about the upcoming launch. “Everything has to go perfectly.”

The launch will be streamed live on NASA TV and NASA’s YouTube channel.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.