A massive telescope, with a diameter of 6.5 metres, will be deployed in the sky about 1.5 million km from the earth in 2014 to enable astronomers to study several subjects, including the formation of the first stars and galaxies after the Big Bang that created the universe, according to John C. Mather, joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2006.

The telescope, called the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is named after a former NASA Administrator.

The other observations that scientists could make with the JWST were the evolution of galaxies as they changed with time, the formation of stars and planets, and evolution of planetary systems such as the solar system, said Dr. Mather, Senior Project Scientist, JWST, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, U.S.

Very large telescope

“It is a very large telescope. It is bigger than the Hubble telescope,” he said. The JWST is a project of NASA in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency.

Dr. Mather was speaking on Monday at the Space Summit organised by the Indian Space Research Organisation as part of the Indian Science Congress being held in Thiruvananthapuram.

Arianespace’s Ariane -V vehicle will deploy the telescope. It will be folded up into the rocket’s fairing before the launch. Its locationis called the Sun-Earth Lagrange point L-2.

Dr. Mather explained: “It is a perfect place for the telescope to be protected from the heat of the sun. The telescope will have a sun-shield bigger than a tennis-court. This huge umbrella allows the telescope to reach a temperature of 40 Kelvin so that it can observe infra-red radiation. If it were to be as warm as human beings, it will be emitting infra-red radiation and prevent us from doing observations.”

Orbiter to Europa?

Dr. Mather said there were plans to send an orbiter to Europa, which is a moon of the planet Jupiter. Europa was discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1609. It was warm inside and had an ocean with ice covering it. The ice was active and moved around. “It is clearly a place of interest for fundamental science. It is conceivable that it has life. It is possible that the ocean, underneath the ice, has life,” said Dr. Mather. It was possible for chemical life to exist on Europa as it existed on earth. It was an “interesting and intellectual question” whether the conditions required for life to exist on earth were also available in “strange and exotic locations such as Europa,” he said.

The scientist

Dr. Mather shared the Nobel Prize with George F. Smoot of the University of California for their work on the understanding of the Big Bang. Dr. Mather was one of the organisers of the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite of NASA, launched in 1989, to measure the cosmic background radiation of the universe. “This radiation remains the Big Bang itself. We measured the temperature and spectrum of the radiation, extremely precisely, demonstrating that there is no theory to explain [the origin of the universe] other than the Big Bang theory.”

Hot and cold spots

The COBE organisers also measured the hot and cold spots in this Big Bang radiation to understand why it was possible for galaxies to exist. “So we believe that the hot and cold spots we measured are the precursors of the clusters of galaxies that are now observed… These hot and cold spots have evolved over cosmic time to produce the structure of the universe that we now see. These two main measurements we made with the help of the COBE satellite are the basis of our getting the Nobel Prize,” he said.