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James Webb: the jewel in the crown

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The JWST space telescope, acronym by James Webb Space Telescope , is called to cause a revolution in our knowledge of the cosmos. How is it going to be achieved? What differences does it have with respect to its predecessors, among which is the well-known Hubble or HST ? One of the main keys is found in technology, but also in the use made of it.

The JWST is the result decades of technological development and is the heir to the accumulated experience of NASA , ESA and CSA, the space agencies of The USA, Europe and Canada, the partners of this exciting project. Among its most outstanding characteristics are the size of its main mirror (6.5 compared to 2.4 meters from the HST), its location (at a point 1.5 million km from the Earth, in the opposite direction to the Sun, compared to 540 km from Hubble), its low temperature ( – 230 ° C compared to +20 ° C from HST ) and its structure, where a multilayer folding parasol the size of a tennis court stands out.

After the mirror is a set of sophisticated instruments that will allow to analyze visible and infrared light in a comprehensive manner. A strategy has been designed around four scientific axes: the properties of the universe when it was in its early stages, galaxies, the life cycle of stars and the study of planets. For this, four instruments have been developed that will allow breaking the frontiers of knowledge in these and other areas.

Spain has played a role very relevant in the development of two of these instruments, called NIRSPEC and MIRI, activities coordinated in our country by Santiago Arribas and Luis Colina , researchers at the Astrobiology Center, a joint institute of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) and the National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA ). The contribution to the development of MIRI has been articulated through the participation of INTA engineers and scientists in a large European consortium, in addition to a significant grant from the now Ministry of Science and Innovation, for which I have been responsible. In addition, the Center for Astrobiology brings together Spanish researchers involved in the scientific exploitation of guaranteed times, a direct return for technological participation. These milestones have been achieved despite scarce funding, which was never guaranteed, and management systems that do not favor these types of activities in the long term. It highlights, along with other missions under development such as PLATO , which will detect and characterize thousands of exoplanets, the need to simplify these processes by creating a true Spanish Space Agency to channel resources.

The JWST can be defined as the most complex machine created by the human being, taking into account its reduced weight (a quarter of that of a bus) and the importance of its mission. The data will be exploited both by the groups that have participated in the development of the instruments and the telescope and by other researchers from around the world who request access to the observation time, after going through an exhaustive selection process. In any case, eventually all the data will be made public, thus benefiting all of humanity.

I dare to predict that, as well What happened with the Spitzer telescope, operational from 2003 to 2020, which contributed in an extraordinary way to the study of exoplanets although it was not designed for it, there will be many unsuspected uses of the JWST, with surprising discoveries that we are now unable to foresee. Once again, new horizons await us.

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