The James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful observatory ever sent to space, is gearing up to begin its science mission this summer. In the run-up to that milestone, work is underway to deploy the many instruments aboard the $10 billion (roughly Rs. 76,165 crore) telescope. One of those instruments is NIRSpec, the Near Infrared Spectrograph. It is just about to start delivering data to scientists waiting here desperately to see the cosmos in a different light. The spectrograph is one of the most powerful instruments aboard the Webb and will allow scientists to observe at least 100 galaxies at a time.
In fact, it’s over 100 times better than a similar instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope.
James Webb has a giant 21.6-feet-wide mirror, which will help it study the oldest and most distant galaxies. The telescope will observe infrared light, the heat-carrying part of the electromagnetic spectrum with longer wavelengths than visible light. Although the earliest stars emitted visible light, the vast expansion of the universe this light shifted into the infrared part of the spectrum. This process is known as the redshift.
While NIRSpec may not produce eye-catching images, it will certainly deliver an unprecedented amount of information about the universe. The spectrograph doesn’t take images but splits the incoming light into individual components of the light spectrum.
With this instrument in space, astronomers will be able to observe and measure at least a hundred galaxies at the same time, said Andy Bunker, an Oxford University astrophysicist and one of the seven European scientists that have shaped the design of NIRSpec.
“I’ve always been interested in pushing the limit for the most distant known object,” Bunker told Space.com.
NIRSpec is going to look at a vast number of stars, galaxies, clusters, planets and other bodies, which will help scientists understand and answer several questions about the origin of the universe.
James Webb, a project of international cooperation involving NASA, was launched on Christmas last year. It reached its target destination, the so-called Lagrange Point 2, some 1 million kilometres away from Earth. It currently undergoing deployment and cooling procedures and is expected to start science missions in summer this year.