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How France participated in the next space revolution

How France participated in the next space revolution

On December 24, the Ariane 5 rocket will launch the James-Webb space telescope into orbit, taken from the famous Hubble. Launched in the late 1980s this technological jewelry will disrupt our view of the universe.

Space adventure is a part of the long haul. When the first milestones for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) were set in 1989, its predecessor, the Hubble Telescope, had not yet gone into space. But the future is long overdue and finally 32 years later, this incredible tool that weighs 6 tons the size of a tennis court is about to begin work.

If there is no last-minute delay, the James-Webb telescope will take off from Guyana, Guyana, on December 24 on an Ariane 5 rocket. This is one of the milestones in space history, such as the Curiosity rover on Mars or the flea robot on the comet Rosetta. A technological breakthrough, the result of international cooperation, will open a new page in space exploration.

To fully understand the impact of this eagerly awaited telescope, it is enough to look at what its big brother Hubble, launched in 1990, could bring. Most of the incredible photos of galaxies, supernovae or planets come from this telescope. Refined and colored for better rendering.

The Pillars of Creation, one of the iconic photos taken by Hubble
Pillars of Creation, one of the iconic photos taken by Hubble © NASA

Unlike Earth-based telescopes, space telescopes installed in Earth’s orbit are not obstructed by the atmosphere to capture the best views, capturing both visible light from humans but invisible spectra (such as infrared, gamma rays). We are indebted to the evidence for the existence of black holes, the age purification of the universe, or the idea of ​​the infinite number of galaxies in the universe.

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Almost $ 10 billion

James-Webb, named after the former NASA boss during the first step on the moon, promises to take a new step. Its main mirror, a device for capturing the popular light spectrum, is 6.5 meters in diameter (2.4 meters per hub). More powerful and located 1.5 million km from Earth (600 km to Hubble), it promises to detect the smallest light of the first stars to appear at the edge of our universe. It should also tell us about how galaxies formed. Finally, since each chemical component has a spectral signature, it is possible to determine whether the exoplanet has the necessary conditions for life (such as methane, ozone, water, etc.) or whether it contains traces of life.

The shares are high, and the budget: $ 9.7 billion, mainly provided by NASA ($ 7.9 billion). But since the European Space Agency (ESA) has provided MIRI (Mid-InfraRed Instrument), one of the four instruments, Europe is not disconnected from the project, making it possible to observe distant infrared light. The MIRIM imager (equivalent to a camera) developed between Cnes, CEA and several French laboratories between 2004 and 2009 was specifically responsible for one of the two components of the device, France.

Another French actor taking part in the adventure: ArianeSpace, responsible for sending the telescope into a distant orbit 1.5 million km away. If the Ariane 5 rocket had been used more to send satellites closer to our planet, it would have already been responsible for launching two scientific satellites, Herschel and Blank, at the Lockrange L2 point in 2009, just like the orbit point planned for James-Webb.

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But the launch will be “in a decade” for the entrepreneur who has been working for years to convert his launcher to this task. The latter has one month to go into orbit and another 5 months to start its work.

This voyage will be the last voyage of the Ariane 5, which will lead to the new Ariane 6 launcher in 2022. One last task is to complete the most important.

Thomas Leroy BFM Business Journalist