When you were a kid did you ever look up at the stars and wonder what was out there and how it all came to be? I certainly did and I still do when I get the chance away from city lights. That’s why I get excited about projects like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST or Webb).
I’m sure most people have heard about the Hubble Space Telescope, named after astronomer Edwin Hubble, which was launched in 1990 and has provided us with some of the most iconic and detailed images of our universe. The Hubble remains in operation but is approaching the end of its life span and is in need of a successor. That’s where the Webb telescope comes in to play.
Originally called the Next Generation Space Telescope, because it is intended to build on the work of the Hubble and will also feature new engineering technologies such as a lightweight, deployable primary mirror which weighs less than Hubble’s mirror but is six times the size, it was renamed in September 2002 after James E. Webb, a NASA administrator who led the Apollo missions.
Webb is a large space based observatory which will operate farther from Earth than the Hubble does, maintaining orbit at the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point. A Lagrange point is a position where the combined gravitational pull of two large bodies, in this case Earth and the Sun, interact to create a stable point in gravitational potential. A spacecraft can maintain an orbit at this point with relatively small fuel consumption since the gravitational forces combine to create a mostly stable orbit. The reason for operating the Webb telescope at the second Lagrange point is because Webb mainly observes infrared light and since heat radiation is infrared, any object that creates heat, including Webb itself, would interfere with observations from the telescope. To combat this problem Webb has a large sun-shield which needs to block light from the Sun, the Earth and the Moon all at once. Being at the second Lagrange point enables the sun-shield to block all these emitters of heat radiation all at the same time and the cold environment keeps the telescope at a very low operating temperature to minimize any interference to its observations. There is one drawback to this orbit which is that, unlike Hubble, the Webb will not be serviceable and will therefore only have an operating lifespan of 5 1/2 to 10 years.
Webb will look deeper into space than Hubble is capable of doing, going further into the reaches of the earliest formation of galaxies in our Universe. We’ll be able to see how galaxies formed and evolved through time, follow the formation of stars and planets, and investigate planetary systems for potential life. We will also be able to look more closely at our own solar system and hopefully gain a deeper understanding of our little corner of the Universe, from how the system formed to closer looks at all the objects in our system, from Mars to Pluto, planets and asteroids and everything in between. Webb will also contribute to many other research endeavours such as dark matter and dark energy research, and will also continue in the footsteps of Hubble by providing images and discoveries to the public. Since Webb images will be in infrared and will have to be shifted into a visible light picture by computer, they will look different to Hubble but I have no doubt they will be just as fascinating and beautiful.
This project is a collaboration between fourteen countries, lead by NASA with significant contribution from the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Proposals from around the world will be used to determine observation plans and data will be publicly available for scientists and the general public. Webb has an estimated launch date of October 2018.
Projects like this one are beautiful in more ways than one. They allow us to see further and understand more clearly our Universe in all its beauty. These discoveries help shape us and our place in the Universe, they fire the imagination and lead us onward to deeper appreciation of life, beauty and truth.
What is life without knowledge? Our Universe is awe-inspiring and the more we know, the better it gets.
For more information on the James Webb Space Telescope you can visit the NASA website at: