James Webb Space Telescope Technology – What’s Next For NASA’s Giant New Eye

The James Webb Space Telescope will usher in a new “golden age” of astronomy by providing scientists with an unprecedented, detailed view of the universe.  It is designed to look deeper into space than ever before, to observe the most distant objects created during the first 500 million years of our universe and to peer inside dust clouds where new stars and planets are being born. 

From the time of its invention, in the early 17th century, until the early 20th century, the telescope was used primarily by astronomers. Soon after its invention, it became a scientific instrument used throughout the world. In this period it was viewed as a “high tech” device and an object of great curiosity. In 1609 Galileo Galilei was able to see mountains on the moon for the first time in human history using his telescope, which caused a revolution in astronomy and directly led to the Copernican Revolution. The famous Dutch lens grinder and optician, Hans Lippershey, is generally credited with creating the refracting telescope sometime around 1608 in what is today The Netherlands. However, Galileo’s written work on observational astronomy indicates that he had two telescopes before that date and that he wrote about them in correspondence to his friends. Although there is no evidence that Lippershey invented either of these two devices, it is quite possible that Galileo learned of their existence from him. The exact details are unknown because he did not publish anything about his discoveries until 1610. After Galileo’s publication, other scientists who were aware of Lippershey’s inventions began to construct their own devices for use in astronomy, physics, navigation and surveying.

The James Webb Space Telescope is a space telescope that will be launched into an Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit and is scheduled to launch in October 2018. The JWST will succeed the Hubble Space Telescope and it will be the premier observatory of the next decade. The JWST will offer unprecedented resolution and sensitivity from long-wavelength visible light, through near-infrared to the mid-infrared. It is designed to look back through time to see the first stars and galaxies that formed in the Universe, as well as look deep into nearby solar systems. It is a joint project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency. The primary mirror is 6.5 meters (21 feet 4 inches) in diameter, nearly three times as large as that of Hubble. The mirror is made of 18 hexagonal segments, together with six triangular ones at the edge, giving it the same number of components as Hubble’s primary mirror. Unlike Hubble’s spherical mirrors, which were polished from glass taken from Saint-Gobain Vitroceram in France, JWST’s are made from beryllium mixed with graphite or carbon-composite materials. The telescope has a sunshield between its mirrors.

Having such a powerful telescope will give us many new opportunities to see what there is to see. It could point out planets that are capable of supporting life, as well as stellar birthplaces and other celestial objects. Space research is something that has always been fascinating, but I personally think that this telescope is going to make it more so. We can only keep our fingers crossed to hope for the best!