Heard of the James Webb Space Telescope and want to know more?

Read below for everything you need to know about the JWST.

james webb space telescope

A full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope (Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn)

 

What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

The James Webb Space Telescope (also known as “JWST” or “WEBB”) is a large telescope that is planned to be launched into space in the near future.

Its mission is to provide better-than-ever images of the far reaches of space to advance mankind’s understanding of the universe.

By being in space, a space telescope avoids light pollution and other factors that inhibit the viewing capabilities of telescopes that are on Earth.

In can also travel huge distances and get much closer to other planets, moons, and galaxies to be able to send back better images.

 

 

Who’s building the JWST?

The JWST mission is led by NASA, but in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency.

james webb telescope

An artist’s impression of the James Webb Telescope in space (credit: Northrop Grumman).

 

What will JWST study and see?

The JWST has four key goals:

  1. to look for the oldest objects in the universe – the stars and galaxies first formed after the big bang, 13.8billion years ago,
  2. to study galaxies – how they are formed and how they evolve,
  3. to study how stars and planetary systems come together and evolve, and
  4. to look for other planetary systems and learn about the origins of life.

 

JWST Full-scale model

JWST Full-scale model at NASA Goddard (Credit: NASA)

 

How far will the James Webb Telescope travel from Earth?

The James Webb Space Telescope is going to be heading to the second Lagrange point, which is 1 million miles away from Earth. It should take around 30 days from launch to get to there.

It will not be in orbit around the Earth in the way the Hubble is; it’s going to revolve around our sun.

It will take around a year to orbit the sun each time.

JWST orbit

The orbit of James Webb Space Telescope (Credit: ESA).

How does the James Webb Telescope work?

The WEBB is going to use engineering techniques never previously used on any telescope.

To gather light on the Telescope; there is a huge hexagonal mirror made with 18 beryllium segments. These are so much lighter than traditional mirror glass, but are very strong.

The hexagonal beryllium segments work to collect light from a distant object, whereas the secondary mirror reflects the light from the primary mirror to the instruments on board.

There is a star tracker used to get it in the right direction, and a Fine Guidance Sensor will be used to fine-tune the images.

Each segment can be adjusted to create the perfect picture. There is also a box called the Integrated Science Instrument Module that sits just behind the primary mirror to collect the light. This is attached to a backplane, and this keeps the mirrors stable.

The JWST’s observational goals can be accomplished more effectively by observation in near-infrared light rather than light in the visible part of the spectrum. For this reason, the JWST’s instruments will not measure visible or ultraviolet light like the Hubble Telescope, but will have a much greater capacity to perform infrared astronomy.

It also has a huge sun guard to protect it from overheating and potentially damaging radiation from the sun.

JWST galaxies

Artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope as it transits in front of the Milky Way (Credit: ESA).

 

James Webb Space Telescope vs. Hubble: What’s different?

The JWST that is planned to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990.

Telescopes do a lot of different things, so while it’s easy to assume the James Webb Telescope will be precisely like the Hubble, it’s not!

It’s being thought of as the “successor” to the Hubble Telescope, which was put into orbit in 1990. With the Hubble, we were able to see how old the Universe was, how quickly it’s expanding, and we could date it due to size and depth. With the James Webb, there are similar goals.

It will look at the formation of stars and planets as well as the evolution of the galaxies. It’s not just about finding those new exoplanets but detecting their compositions.

The Hubble looked at ultraviolet wavelengths, but the James Webb will look in infrared. As planets are obscured by dust when they are first born, the infrared will allow us to observe the new galaxies and planets far more closely.

James Webb is also much bigger than the Hubble. It’s comparing a school bus to a tennis court!

ames Webb Space Telescope cryogenic testing

The flight mirrors for the James Webb Space Telescope undergo cryogenic testing at NASA Marshall (Credit: Ball Aerospace).

 

Where is it located?

The James Webb Telescope is scheduled to launch on an Ariane 5 space rocket from French Guiana.

Then, it will fly for 30 days to get 1 million miles from here to it’s more permanent home in the Lagrange point. It will orbit here while it carries out its studies.

James webb space telescope launch

This graphic shows how the James Webb Space Telescope will deploy after launch (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

 

What’s the launch date?

Currently, the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for launch in March 2021.

It was initially supposed to launch in 2018, but NASA delayed the original launch after the practice deployment saw a sun shield panel rip. It was then delayed again later in 2018 due to an independent review board not approving the launch.

The launch vehicle, the Ariane 5, is a European contribution to the mission. It’s regarded as one of the most reliable launch vehicles, and (as of June 2017) has had 80 successful launches.

It will be launched from Arianespace’s ELA-3 launch complex. This is located at the European Spaceport near Kourou, French Guiana.

How much has it cost?

NASA previously confirmed that the costs for the James Webb Space Telescope were going to soar. The plan that was performed in 2016 showed that the running cost was up to $8.7 billion. However, since then, the price has soared even further to $10 billion.

This is a much higher figure by $2 billion than was pre-planned.

There have been technical issues, human errors, and other scheduling conflicts that have worked to push up costs.

Given that the JWST is the size of a tennis court and three stories high, it was always going to be an expensive investment. It’s 100 times more powerful than the Hubble, too, which takes even more money!

The James Webb Space Telescope Sunshield

A full-scale JWST sunshield membrane (Credit: Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems).

 

Who is James E Webb, and why does he get a telescope named after him?

NASA named the James Webb Space Telescope after James E. Webb, who ran NASA from 1961-1968.

Webb retired a few months before the 1969 Moon Landing, and he was a part of 75 different space science missions designed to explore space and other worlds.

Previous to joining NASA, Webb was an experienced manager, attorney, and businessman. US President Kennedy himself asked Webb to consider the job at NASA, knowing full well that he was not a scientist. He knew that his political understanding and exceptional managerial skills would make him perfect for the job.

At the height of the Apollo program, there were 35,000 NASA employees and almost half a million contractors under Webb’s direction.

 

More information on the JWST: