The age of the universe. Dark matter. Black holes. Galaxies. Stars. Distant planets. For the past twenty years, the Hubble telescope has been orbiting the Earth while taking pictures of what lays deep within our universe. Hubble has provided answers to some of the pressing questions held by astronomers while uncovering new mysteries of our universe. The telescope ushered in a new age of astronomy, and now, after twenty years of construction, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be extending and continuing the discoveries of Hubble.
The JWST will be the most powerful telescope ever launched. Not only will it be able to peer into dust clouds to observe the creation of stars and planets, but it will be able to observe the earliest stars and galaxies. This is thanks to two key features. First, the JWST will have the biggest telescope mirror to fly in space. The 6.5 meter diameter mirror will allow the telescope to collect 7 times more light than the Hubble telescope. The more light a telescope can collect, the larger the collection field. Second, the JWST has been designed to collect infrared light while the Hubble telescope is not very sensitive to infrared — a light invisible to the human eye. The farther an object is, the more redshifted it becomes. This pushes the light from UV and optical to near-infrared which makes observations of distant objects difficult without an infrared telescope.
In terms of orbit, the JWST will not be orbiting the Earth like Hubble. It will actually be sent past the moon, reaching approximately 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, on an Ariane 5 rocket. To put this in perspective, the Hubble currently sits at approximately 570 kilometers from Earth. The JWST will sit at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point — a point in space where the combined gravitational force of the Sun and the Earth creates an equilibrium of sorts where an object can be placed. The European Space agency currently has the Herschel Space Observatory located at this point.
What’s Being Observed?
The JWST will be able to expand upon what we already know by looking deeper into the universe. The main focus of the JWST will be searching for the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang, while also studying the formation and evolution of galaxies, stars, and planetary systems. Alongside searching for the creation of planets, the JWST will be able to search for and study planets orbiting distant stars; we will be able to observe exoplanets like TRAPPIST-1 and determine their atmospheres. If we move closer to home, the JWST will also be able to observe planets within our solar system. Once the telescope is set up, the JWST will be the next step in space exploration.
Who is James E. Webb?
James E. Webb ran NASA from February 1961 to October 1968; he was a man who saw the space program as more than a political race. He advocated for NASA to be a balance between human space travel and science which led to a decade of unparalleled space research. Webb led NASA during the height of the space program where he oversaw 35,000 employees and more than 400,000 contractors across the U.S. Their goal was to put a man on the moon before the decade ended.
NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said this about Webb when announcing the new name for the telescope: “It is fitting that Hubble’s successor be named in honor of James Webb. Thanks to his efforts, we got our first glimpses at the dramatic landscape of outer space. He took our nation on its first voyages of exploration, turning our imagination into reality. Indeed, he laid the foundations at NASA for one of the most successful periods of astronomical discovery. As a result, we’re rewriting the textbooks today with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope , the Chandra X-ray Observatory , and the James Webb Telescope.”
When Will it be Launched?
The JWST is expected to launch in 2018 and is currently undergoing rigorous tests. Due to its massive size, the telescope will be launched furled and will have to expand over the course of two weeks in space. From there, the sunshield will be activated, and the telescope will be given time to cool down before they begin to focus it. NASA expects the James Webb Space Telescope will be ready to make observations six months after launch.
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