NASA’s Hubble Telescope is one step closer to being relieved by its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, after 24 years and counting in space. The last main instrument on the Webb Telescope was installed in April, the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec). Webb now has all four of its sensors installed after adding NIRSpec with surgical precision into the Integrated Science Instrumental Module (ISIM). Like a very expensive game of Operation, engineers had to be sure that the instrument did not come into contact with the frame of the ISIM, which could have severely damaged the sensitive device. After extensive training and simulation runs, they were able to perfectly line up the sensor and bolt it into place.
NIRSpec will collect and analyze light from distant objects, breaking out just the near infrared spectrum to give us insight into the chemical make-up of stars, galaxies, planets and supernovae to name a few. It is designed to observe 100 objects at a time, peering into the depths of the Universe to analyze the first galaxies that were formed after the Big Bang. These objects are so distant and the light so faint that the telescope will have to stare at the same point in space for hundreds of hours to collect enough light to analyze. Viewing such distant objects requires new technology that blocks the light from nearer objects which can easily be picked up by the sensor and interfere with its readings. NIRspec’s microshutter array opens and closes extremely small cells to either block out light or allow it to pass through to the sensor.
Often referred to as the Next Generation Space Telescope, Webb will be our eyes in the sky for the next decade of discovery and exploration. Simultaneous observations will inundate us with new data about our Universe, its origin and the celestial bodies that occupy it. Longer wavelength information will give us further insight into phenomenon already discovered and analyzed by Hubble and assisting sensors. The telescope is slated to be launched in 2018, until then we can enjoy the wonderful images collected by Hubble and all its amazing discoveries.