The James Webb Telescope Is Set To Blow Hubble Out Of Space, (Almost) Literally

The universe is so big that humanity may never discover all of its secrets, but with the James Webb Space Telescope, we are closer than ever to discovering just a few more. This space telescope, which has a launch date of 2019, is the successor to the Hubble. The latter telescope has helped us glimpse the universe for almost 30 years.

What makes the Webb version so special? For starters, it can see farther into deep space. The $8.8 billion Webb Telescope will see, perhaps, billions of years into the past in order to study the formation of the first galaxies in our universe.

NASA has many plans for the Webb. Not only will the telescope let scientists view some of the oldest objects in space, it could also potentially lead us to life on other planets and moons. We may even find liquid water on these bodies.

The Webb Telescope Will See Farther Than The Hubble Telescope

For years, the Hubble Telescope helped humans glimpse the universe. But the James Webb Telescope has better vision capabilities. NASA explains that the Webb will present images with the same sharpness and resolution as the Hubble but from a much farther distance.

The Hubble can only see light that ranges from about 0.2 to 2.4 microns, so it can’t see anything past near-infrared light. The Webb completely blows away its predecessor.

The Webb Telescope Might Allow Scientists To See The Formation Of The First Galaxies

The James Webb Telescope’s ability to see near-infrared and mid-infrared light will allow it to view objects many light years away. In fact, the telescope can act as a sort of time machine into the past since it will be able to see events that happened billions of years ago. Additionally, the telescope will see objects previously obscured by the dense dust clouds. NASA reports:

“Star and planet formation in the local universe take place in the centers of dense, dusty clouds, obscured from our eyes at normal visible wavelengths. Near-infrared light, with its longer wavelength, is less hindered by the small dust particles, allowing near-infrared light to escape from the dust clouds. By observing the emitted near-infrared light we can penetrate the dust and see the processes leading to star and planet formation.”

The Webb Telescope Will Look For Signs Of Life On Europa And Enceladus

The James Webb Telescope will also study Jupiter’s moon, Europa, and Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. The telescope will attempt to detect whether there’s liquid water underneath the moons’ icy surfaces. Additionally, it is theorized that subsurface geysers on those moons could provide a source of heat and nutrients for life-forms there.

Scientists believe that if the geysers do provide heat, the telescope will be able to detect the heat through the infrared light emitted from the moons. One writer mentioned:

“Researchers are hoping that Webb can help to identify regions on the surfaces of these moons where geologic activity, such as plume [geyser] eruptions, are taking place.”

The Webb Telescope Might Find Water On Exoplanets

The James Webb Telescope could also find water on exoplanets and lead the way to finding other habitable planets beyond our solar system. All About Space magazine notes:

“One of the JWST’s most notable abilities is that it will be able to detect planets around nearby stars by measuring infrared radiation, and it will even be able to measure the atmospheres of exoplanets by studying the starlight that passes through. By doing this it will be able to determine if an exoplanet has liquid water on its surface.”

The Webb Telescope Will Primarily Observe The Infrared Spectrum

The James Webb Telescope has a major advantage over the Hubble Telescope and other spacecrafts currently monitoring deep space. The former telescope will detect some of the faintest objects in the universe. As the universe expands, the oldest objects in space move farther away from us, no longer emitting ultraviolet and visible light. Those older objects emit infrared light, instead, making them incredibly hard to see without a specially designed infrared light telescope. NASA says:

“To see these faint objects, it must be able to detect things that are ten billion times as faint as the faintest stars visible without a telescope.”

The Webb will be to see infrared light and penetrate the dust clouds that block out visible light. The locations of the earliest stars and planets will be much more visible.

The Webb Telescope Will Also Investigate Brown Dwarfs

While the potential of learning more about the earliest days of our universe is exciting enough, the James Webb Telescope will also help investigate another elusive object in space. Brown dwarfs, those dim bodies that aren’t classified as either stars or planets, will finally be further explored. NASA is hopeful that the Webb’s infrared capabilities will allow scientists to learn more about these mysterious objects. NASA claims:

“Several research teams will use Webb to explore the mysterious nature of brown dwarfs, looking for insight into both star formation and exoplanet atmospheres, and the hazy territory in-between where the brown dwarf itself exists… These observations could lay groundwork for future exoplanet exploration with Webb, including which worlds could support life. Webb’s infrared instruments will be capable of detecting the types of molecules in the atmospheres of exoplanets by seeing which elements are absorbing light as the planet passes in front of its star, a scientific technique known as transit spectroscopy.”

The Webb Telescope Will Launch In 2019

The James Webb Telescope leaves on its mission in Spring 2019. According to NASA, the Webb will launch from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket – a European heavy-lift launch vehicle. The launch site is called Kourou ELA-3, or the Guiana Space Centre.

The Webb Telescope Will Work With A Different Wavelength

Since the James Webb Telescope is designed to see infrared light, it will detect light on a different wavelength than other telescopes.

Infrared light’s three regions on the electromagnetic spectrum emit at longer wavelengths than visible light. Near-infrared is 0.7 to 5 microns, mid-infrared is 5 to 30 microns, and far-infrared is 30 to 1000 microns.

The Webb will be able to see on a wavelength of 0.6 to 28 microns, meaning it will be able to observe objects in the mid-infrared regions.

The Project Will Take Years To Complete

Specialists started working on the James Webb Telescope in 1996. It’s a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been one of NASA’s key observatories since 1990. Although the Hubble could remain active until 2040, NASA began developing a successor as early as the mid-1990s. The Webb project was conceived during NASA’s push to develop a low-cost telescope that was “faster, better, cheaper.” Former agency director Dan Goldin coined that motto.

The Webb Telescope Will Not Orbit Earth

Unlike the Hubble Telescope, the James Webb Telescope will not circle Earth. Instead, it will maintain an orbit between Earth and the Sun in a cold location in space known as L2. The Webb will travel to L2 primarily because the telescope must be very cool in order to operate correctly. NASA says:

“Webb will observe primarily the infrared light from faint and very distant objects. Infrared is heat radiation, so all warm things, including telescopes, emit infrared light. To avoid swamping the very faint astronomical signals with radiation from the telescope, the telescope and its instruments must be very cold.”

The Webb Telescope Is Named After The Second Administrator Of NASA

The James Webb Telescope is named after James Webb, the second administrator of NASA. He led the agency from February 14, 1961 to October 7, 1968. Webb managed NASA during both Mercury missions that sent the first humans to space. He also oversaw the early Apollo missions, which eventually placed men on the moon. In fact, Neil Armstrong took his first step on the crater-filled orb less than a year after Administrator Webb stepped down from his position.

The Webb Telescope was originally called the Next Generation Space Telescope, but NASA changed the name in 2002.

The Webb Telescope Will Cost Billions Of Dollars To Make

The James Webb Telescope cost $8.8 billion, and it’s a NASA Flagship mission. The Flagship program is one of NASA’s three programs (the other two are New Frontiers and Discovery) that explore the solar system. This program funds the most expensive missions. In fact, Flagship missions usually cost much more than a billion dollars.

The Webb Telescope Will Embark On A Relatively Short Mission

While the James Webb Telescope is designed to be more powerful than the Hubble, the newer telescope is only meant to last a decade at most. NASA designed the Webb for a five-year mission in space, with a goal of extending it to 10 years.

The length of the Webb’s mission will depend on two main factors – the amount of fuel it uses during orbit and whether any instruments on the telescope malfunctions. Unlike the Hubble, the Webb won’t be serviceable; astronauts won’t be able to fix any damages once the mission begins.

Three Space Agencies Will Get Credit For The Project

NASA spearheaded the James Webb Telescope mission and developed the craft for over a decade, but the agency also collaborated with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency on the project. This is not the first time NASA received contributions from other space agencies; the American agency worked with the European organization on the Hubble Telescope.

Northtrop Grumman contractors developed the spacecraft bus and sun shield, while Ball Aeronautics contractors developed the telescope itself.

The Telescope’s Sun Shield Will Be The Size Of A Tennis Court

The James Webb Telescope has a very large sun shield. In fact, it’s the size of a tennis court. The sun shield will keep the telescope cool enough to operate with infrared energy. NASA believes:

“Webb’s operating temperature is less than 50 degrees above absolute zero: 50 Kelvin (-223° C or -370° F). Therefore, Webb has a large shield that blocks the light from the Sun and Earth (and the Moon), which otherwise would heat up the telescope, and interfere with the observations. Webb will be placed in orbit around the Sun at a special location where its sunshield can block both the Sun and Earth (and Moon) all the time.”