The Hubble Space Telescope, which brought us the birth of stars, incredible images of the Pillars of Creation and the deaths of supernovas, is set to be replaced by three-storey next generation telescope now preparing for its 2018 launch.
And while Hubble orbited Earth, where it could be serviced by astronauts, the James Webb Infrared Space Telescope will travel 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) into space to orbit in a gravitational phenomena that will give it more power to peer into the unknown.
It will let human beings see further into the universe than ever before in hopes of answering how galaxies form and if there could be life on other planets.
Named for the the man who ran the fledgling NASA space agency from February 1961 to October 1968, the James Webb is a joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
Expectations are high for the telescope after Hubble’s incredible photographs opened our eyes to the unbelievable beauty of the cosmos.
The telescope and its mission hold tremendous promise, said Dr. Laura Danly, curator at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
“It’s kind of insanely complex and kind of crazy that we’re going to send it out far away from earth, we won’t be able to service it with astronauts like we could with Hubble, but once it’s deployed it will be making amazing discoveries,” said Danly.
The James Webb will have seven times more light gathering power than Hubble and will work on infrared rather than ultraviolet and visible light. That should allow it to peer through gas and dust surrounding areas where stars and planets are being formed.
That capability could allow it to answer to of the most intriguing questions facing astronomers.
One of them is the formation of galaxies, said Danly.
Hubble allowed us to see galaxies, but not how they form, she said.
“So we’d like to know how galaxies came to be because galaxies spawn stars, spawn planets, spawned life, so it’s really the beginning of the history, the origin of us,” said Danly.
“The other big mystery that it is very perfectly tuned to study is extrasolar planets, planets outside our own solar system, and to look at their atmospheres and try to determine, does that atmosphere suggest there is life on that planet,” she said.
The James Webb has a sunshield the size of a tennis court and has 21-foot (6.5 meter) mirror that is coated in gold.
It is so sensitive, it could detect the heat signature of a bumblebee on the moon and took 1,200 scientists, engineers, and technicians from 14 countries to build.
It is currently under testing to see how it will work in deep space.
Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits Earth, the James Webb will orbit the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange Point, over 1.6 million kilometers from Earth.
This gravitational phenomena happens when the gravity of two bodies effectively cancel each other out, allowing objects to orbit in position. There are several throughout the solar system, but James Webb will hang out in the one between Earth and the sun.
NASA calls the Lagrange point a “wonderful accident of gravity and orbital mechanics and the perfect place to park the Webb telescope.”
The gravitational pulls of the sun and Earth will, due to its position, give the telescope extra energy and lock it on course with Earth’s yearly orbit despite it being so far away.
“Webb will be the foremost space observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide,” said NASA.
An Ariane 5 rocket will carry it into space from French Guiana in October 2018.