Technical University of Denmark: Huge space mission with DTU contribution ready for launch

A unique collaboration between DTU Space at DTU and the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen ensures significant danish participation in the space telescope James Webb Space Telescope, which is led by ESA, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to be launched into space on December 22. (ESA announced on 15 December that the launch has been postponed from 22 to 24 December at the earliest).

If all goes according to plan, an Ariane 5 rocket will be launched from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, two days before Christmas Eve, thereby sending one of the world’s largest and most unique space telescopes to date into space.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be launched into an orbit 1.5 million km from Earth. From there, the giant telescope will explore the farthest parts of the universe in unprecedented detail and study the atmospheres of Earth-like planets for the first time.

“We have been working on the James Webb Space Telescope project for many years in a comprehensive global collaboration and are involved in many aspects of the mission. We look forward with excitement to the launch of the telescope” says Thomas R. Greve, professor at DTU Space and leading scientist of DTU’s work on the James Webb project.

Broad Danish cooperation
DTU and other Danish universities have contributed to the mission.

DTU Space has contributed with the development, design, construction and testing of a carbon fibre suspension structure for the instrument called MIRI onboard the telescope. And scientists at DTU are also at the forefront when the telescope begins to send data back to Earth to be analyzed.

Astronomers at the Cosmic Dawn Center (DAWN), which is a collaboration between DTU Space and the Niels Bohr Institute, lead observation programs on the James Webb Space Telescope. These programs explore the early universe and the formation of the first galaxies.

“The collaboration on the DAWN Center means that both universities have a very prominent position in this project. It is a great success for Danish research that we have been given many hours of observation time early in the process, which is crucial for being at the forefront of new groundbreaking discoveries,” says Thomas R. Greve.

“With the James Webb Space Telescope, we have the opportunity to identify and study for the first time galaxies as they were born only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang that happened 13.8 billion years ago.”

He is supplemented by Professor Sune Toft from the Niels Bohr Institute.

“We expect to make a number of new and exciting discoveries about the universe. But the James Webb Space Telescope will probably also surprise us and find things we have not yet been able to imagine. That is what the history of astronomy has constantly shown us,” he says.

Researchers at the Dark Cosmology Center (DARK) at the Niels Bohr Institute and from Aarhus University are also involved in the mission.

The atmosphere of an exoplanet the size of the Earth to be studied
Researchers at DTU Space have also been awarded observation time to explore the atmosphere around an exoplanet the size of Earth for the first time. Exoplanets are planets orbiting stars other than the Sun.

This work is led by Professor Lars A. Buchhave from DTU Space. He is looking forward with excitement to the first observations from the James Webb Space Telescope.

“These observations will signal the beginning of a new era in the characterization of Earth-like exoplanets and will be able to tell us how different the environments the Earth-like planets outside our solar system are. We will probably be able to say something about if they can be habitable. It may also pave the way for the discovery of biosignatures, i.e., signs of life in the atmospheres of exoplanets,” he says.

A global research collaboration with ESA and NASA
The James Webb project is one of the largest space projects of the 21st century.

Scientists from more than 40 countries are collaborating on the project, which is led by the European Space Agency ESA, NASA in the USA and Canada’s National Space Agency.

Work on the James Webb Space Telescope began nearly 30 years ago. The costs are estimated at around DKK 65 billion kr.

But before the exploration can begin, the James Webb telescope must be successfully launched into space.

And it’s a major operation:

The telescope must reach an orbit position 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, which takes about a month. When in space, the advanced mirror system of 6.5 meters in diameter, which is the key element in the telescope, must unfold.

The launch and unfolding of the mirror are just a few of the critical phases among hundreds of others that the system must complete the telescope can be put to use.

“The day of launch will be quite stressful. And then there will be a few weeks of waiting, where we just have to hope for the best until we get a signal from the James Webb Space Telescope that it is in orbit in space and works as planned,” says DTU professor Thomas R. Greve.

Contribution to the James Webb Space Telescope from DTU:

Carbon fibre constructions. In collaboration with a private company, DTU Space has developed, designed, constructed and tested the special suspension system that carries the MIRI instrument. It consists of carbon fibre tubes with gold-plated metal fittings at the ends, ensuring a stable construction that expands and contracts as little as possible when exposed to heat and cold in space. And which also ensures the least possible heat transfer from space to the MIRI instrument, which the carbon fibre construction holds in place. DTU Space has also provided the protective packaging needed for the instrument to function under the extreme conditions in space.
Exploring the early universe: DAWN researchers – a collaboration between DTU and the University of Copenhagen – lead observation programs that will study the detailed structure and properties of the first galaxies that were formed in the early Universe. DAWN researchers are also strongly represented in COSMOS-Web, which is the program that has been awarded the most time on the James Webb telescope. COSMOS-Web will observe over half a million galaxies and provide new knowledge about the birth, life and death of galaxies.
Exoplanets: Scientists at DTU Space will study the atmosphere and thus the surface environment of the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1c using the James Webb telescope.
Other participants: Researchers at Aarhus University will investigate how supernovae explosions proceed and lead to the formation of heavier elements and cosmic dust. In addition, the basic research center InterCat at the University of Aarhus and researchers from the Niels Bohr Institute will investigate whether the molecular building blocks of life can be formed in interstellar space.

About the telescope: The James Webb Space Telescope is named after former NASA chief James E. Webb, who headed the US space agency from 1961 to 1968, working on the Apollo missions to the moon.

The James Webb telescope’s mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter. It is thus three times larger in diameter than the mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope, which NASA and ESA launched in 1990. The huge mirror makes it possible to capture light from very dim objects. It can collect six times more light than the Hubble Space Telescope and thus see far more detail and ‘deeper’ into the universe than has been possible so far. Where Hubble is sensitive to visible and ultraviolet light, the James Webb telescope observes in the infrared wavelength range. It is optimized to detect heat radiation from exoplanets and light from the most distant galaxies.