On 25 December 2021, the largest space telescope of all time launched from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou (French Guiana). The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is being transported on board a European Ariane 5 ECA launcher. German research institutions and companies were instrumental in the development of two of the four instruments of the telescope, for whose development they received almost €117 million from the budget of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action.
“This is a historic day in international space exploration”, said Robert Habeck, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action. “James Webb will look far back into the history of our universe and help us understand its origins. This telescope also shows what people can achieve where ambitious targets of engineering prowess and international cooperation are being pursued. This is the kind of spirit and ability to innovate that we need as we tackle the major challenges ahead of us.”
The James Webb Space Telescope is seen as the scientific successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. It is a joint project of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the European Space Agency (ESA). The German contribution to ESA is coordinated by the National Space Agency within the German Aerospace Center (DLR), on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action. Overall, ESA is providing more than €500 million for the mission.
James Webb is bound for the Second Lagrange Point (L2), which is located at a distance of approx. 1.5 million kilometres from Earth. From there, the telescope is to study the first galaxies to develop after the Big Bang, some 13.8 billion years ago. The telescope is equipped with four instruments and a foldable main mirror with a diameter of 6.5 meters. This will allow it to capture the radiation emitted by the first galaxies ever to exist. James Webb will also observe stars and planetary systems developing from protoplanetary disks (rings of gas and dust). The telescope is also tasked with searching for exoplanets similar to Earth and with studying their atmosphere.
Two of the four scientific instruments used by the James Webb Space Telescope have been created with major contributions from Germany: the NIRSpec (Near Infrared Spectrograph) is designed for an infrared spectrum of between 0.6 and 5 micrometres and was built by Airbus in Ottobrunn and Friedrichshafen on behalf of ESA. NIRSpec is mainly to be used to track down radiation from the first ever galaxies to form in the early history of the universe, some 200 million years after the Big Bang. MIRI (Mid Infrared Instrument) was jointly built by ESA and NASA and covers the medium infrared spectrum, i.e. wave lengths ranging from five to 28 micrometres.
The German Space Agency at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is tasked with coordinating Germany’s contributions to ESA, the European Space Agency. In the case of James Webb, these add up to approx. €106.5 million. This is excluding the €10 million contribution to the MIRI instrument, which is financed from the National Programme for Space and Innovation. Other German contributions to the mission are being made by Airbus, the ArianeGroup, Hensoldt Optronics, IABG mbH, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and the University of Cologne.
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