A new dawn is emerging in the realm of space exploration and discovery. Ushering in that progress is a new joint NASA, ESA, and CSA space telescope: the James Webb Space Telescope, named after former NASA administrator James E. Webb. Scheduled to launch from the shores of French Guiana in December, it will be the largest and most powerful telescope ever put into space. With a primary mirror covered in gold and measuring 21 feet across, Webb is said to be 100 times more powerful than even the Hubble Space Telescope.
For generations, Hubble Telescope pictures have regaled us with spectacular cosmic landscapes that have allowed us to better understand some of the farthest reaches of our solar system and beyond. And its celestial images have since become iconic. They’ve allowed us a clearer view of space than what was previously possible from below Earth’s atmosphere, which can distort the light traveling from distant stars and planets.
Now, with the help of the James Webb Telescope, we’ll be able to see even further into the corners of the universe. Thought by some to be a replacement for its well-known predecessor, scientists view the new telescope instead as more of a successor, intended to augment and expand upon the discoveries of the Hubble. As their missions overlap, they will jointly provide bewitching views of the cosmos.
“Will Webb images look as gorgeous as Hubble images?” muses Jane Rigby, a NASA astrophysicist on the James Webb team. “Will we love them not just as scientifically valuable, but are they gonna knock our socks off? I'm pretty sure they are.”
Optimized to see near- and mid-infrared light—unlike the Hubble which can primarily detect light visible to the human eye—Webb will be able to view older and colder objects in space. This also allows it to see through dust, which can often obscure stars and other objects in Hubble images. Located about one million miles from earth—more than four times further away than the moon—the powerful telescope will be able to see light that has been traveling for nearly the entire history of the universe.
Due to its massive size, Webb cannot fit into a rocket fully assembled. As a result, its folding 18-segment mirror and tennis court-sized sun shield will need to be unfurled and set up over a period of six months once it arrives at its destination. If these complicated maneuvers go according to plan, then its first images should arrive by sometime next summer. And, according to Rigby, the first images released to the public “are intended to be jaw-droppingly beautiful, powerful, both visually and scientifically.”
The James Webb Space Telescope is currently scheduled to launch from Guiana Space Centre (aka Europe's Spaceport) on December 18, 2021.