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Geeky Parent Guide: The James Webb Telescope Epitomizes the Idea to Dream Big

The James Webb Telescope is a perfect example for parents to highlight to their kids how ideas, dedication, and patience are useful tools to achieve their dreams. The Webb Telescope is a monumental collaboration between several organizations, including the European and Canadian Space Agencies, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) which already performs the science operations for the Hubble Telescope and will do the same for Webb, and many more organizations.

It’s important to highlight how grand of a project and mission the James Webb Telescope is, because it seems impossible to name every single person who has been involved with creating and running “the largest and most powerful space science telescope ever built.” Not only has this project been years in the making, with the initial idea of a large enough infrared telescope popping up in the ‘90s, originally designated as the “Next Generation Space Telescope,” construction began nearly 20 years ago.

So, if your kids ever tell you an idea and it might just seem impossible or a fairy tale, remember the James Webb Telescope and how its recent successful launch is magical in nature, while proving that humans will “boldly go where no one has gone before.” Hey, it wouldn’t be space without a Star Trek: The Next Generation quote, am I right?

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How Big Is the James Webb Space Telescope?

The Webb Telescope is SO big that it literally had to be created in a way where it could fold like a Transformer toy to fit inside of a rocket. If your kids enjoy building things or have any interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), then the ingenuity involved in building something massive, while also determining how to reshape it, is something to admire – dare I say, frame a picture of it on the wall to give them something to “shoot for the stars.”

If you want to know how large the entire telescope is, first, imagine playing tennis and then realizing that the entire game surface is approximately the same size as the Webb Telescope sunshield? The sunshield helps to deflect heat to protect the telescope. Then, imagine a gigantic telescope attached to this “tennis court,” with it reaching “more than two stories high.” Plus, the size of the telescope and all of its mirrors is much grander in scale compared to its predecessor, Hubble, or even a human being? The Hubble primary mirror for its telescope is nearly 8 feet, while Webb’s mirrors reach over 21 feet in length, which is more than 3.5 times the height of a person at 5’8!

What is equally impressive is the fact that all of this maneuvering and restructuring of the telescope takes place despite its gigantic weight. “On Earth, Webb tips the scales at more than 13,000 pounds—just about equal to the weight of an adult African elephant.” Not only did the members of this team have to be precise in its construction, they had to find a way to construct it in a way where all of its weight can be supported throughout the entire process; initial construction phases, relocation or folding for testing, and the forces involved in blasting off into space. It’s safe to say the James Webb Telescope is a big accomplishment in more than one way.

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What Will the James Webb Space Telescope Do?

“It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.”

The universe is an extraordinarily large space, so understanding how galaxies work can help us in the future. For example, the Webb Telescope will be able to look at other planets’ atmospheres in the hopes of finding “a planet with a similar atmosphere to that of Earth.” These searches will take place within our own solar system, as well as looking at other planets beyond our system. This science fiction notion of discovering life on a distant planet is that much closer to a reality with the James Webb Telescope.

Along with observing galaxies, stars, and atmospheres, the Webb Telescope will be using specific technology to achieve its mission objectives. There is a camera (NIRCAM), which will “detect light from: the earliest stars and galaxies in the process of formation, the population of stars in nearby galaxies, as well as young stars in the Milky Way and Kuiper Belt objects.”

The telescope also has a spectrograph (NIRSPEC) will be “used to disperse light from an object into a spectrum. Analyzing the spectrum of an object can tell us about its physical properties, including temperature, mass, and chemical composition.” Although there are many things to explore out in space, this specific device allows itself to study 100 items at the same time, which will expand its reach more quickly.

There is another instrument (MIRI) that includes a camera and spectrograph, adding to its range of light that the telescope can take in, while there is also a “Fine Guidance Sensor/Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph” (FGS/NIRISS). The sensor is what’s used to point the telescope, while the NIRISS looks to detect “first light” and exoplanets.

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An Immensely Large Reach for Webb

The instruments onboard the Webb Telescope allow it to detect infrared wavelengths. This will allow the telescope to search beyond dense dust clouds that block out the light Hubble should be able to see. “The longer wavelengths of infrared light slip past dust more easily, and therefore instruments that detect infrared light—like those on Webb—are able to see the objects that emitted that light inside a dusty cloud.”
Not only will this expand the reach of what Hubble was or wasn’t able to see, Webb will be able to explore places we’ve yet to uncover. This is a wildly fascinating and exciting prospect, and the people involved let parents know that their kids could be one of those people in the future.

Expanding on its large reach, check out this list of facts to help us understand the scope of the James Webb Telescope mission:

  • 40 million total hours spent building the telescope, includes thousands of people from 14 countries
  • An engineering technique to measure the mirrors has been adapted to mapping patients’ eyes for improved LASIK eye surgeries
  • The first observations will take place about 6 months after Webb’s launch, which will allow the telescope enough time to cool down to proper operating temperatures to ensure the function of its instruments
  • “Webb is so sensitive it could theoretically detect the heat signature of a bumblebee at the distance of the Moon.”

On top of all of these fun facts, this mission will be observed by many people across the globe. “Scientists from 41 countries, 42 states, and Washington, D.C., have been awarded observing time during Webb’s first year of science operations.” This means that the James Webb Telescope took millions of hours to create, and many throughout the world will now take part in discovering what else is out in the great beyond.

Not only that, a video was created with “7 Facts from Around the World,” and these facts were displayed in many different languages. From American Sign Language, Spanish, Chinese, Swahili, Dutch, French, Hindi, and Farsi. If anything, watch this video, learn the amazing facts, and take in how wide-reaching this mission truly is.

Science, space, and coming together for a great good; the James Webb Telescope provides all of the good feelings we look for in our favorite science fiction stories. In it all, even non-fiction stories matter as they can equally give us hope, much like our favorite fictional captain of the starship Enterprise (NCC-1701-D).

Are you excited about the Webb mission? Would you like to see an update on the Geeky Parent Guide when its first observations begin to be announced? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and don’t forget to like and share on Facebook and Twitter.

Until next time, happy parenting and happy geeking.


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