by Clare Fitzgerald
/ Getty Images
Wong / Getty Images
NASA is preparing for the launch of a new space telescope that will
allow scientists to examine planets far beyond the reach of the
Called the Webb
Telescope, after former NASA administrator
James Webb, it will use
infrared technology to examine far-away planets.
Model of the James Webb Space Telescope.
Credit: Jim Watson / Getty Images)
The launch of the
Webb Telescope was originally set
to occur in 2010, but delays forced NASA to push it back to December
completing a series of rigorous tests, the launch is set to occur on
December 18, 2021 from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana, on the
northeastern coast of South America.
NASA is working in partnership with the European and Canadian space
agencies for the launch. The telescope will be launched on an
Ariane 5, from which it will detach
10,400 kilometers into the journey.
Moments after separating,
its solar-powered array will unfold, supplying electricity to the
This process includes 178 release mechanisms working to allow it to
complete its 40 major deployments. Once in space, Webb will wait 35
days after launch before aligning its mirrors.
It is estimated the first
images collected by the telescope will be released to the public in
summer 2022, some six months after.
NASA Administrator James Webb
President Harry Truman.
Credit: Smith Collection / Getty Images)
"Webb is an exemplary mission that signifies the epitome of
said Gregory L. Robinson,
Webb's program director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
"I am inspired by our
team and our global partnerships that have made this incredible
overcome technical obstacles along the way, as well as
challenges during the coronavirus 'pandemic'. I also am grateful
for the steadfast support of Congress.
"Now that we have an observatory and a rocket ready for launch,
I am looking forward to the big day and the amazing science to
come," he added.
Construction of the
Webb Space Telescope, 2016.
Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images)
The telescope has a 21-feet-long light-collecting mirror covered in
gold, which will catch the light and allow scientists to analyze the
chemical makeup of the planets' atmospheres.
It's divided into
segments, and it and a five-layer, tennis court-sized sun shield can
fold inside a rocket and later unfurl.
The mirror is the most important aspect of Webb, as it is optimized
to see near- and mid-infrared light invisible to the human eye. This
differs from the
Hubble Telescope, which only shows
optical light humans can see.
An infrared telescope
like Webb can not only see older and colder objects, but it also has
the ability to see through the dust that obscures stars and other
objects in the images transmitted from Hubble.
This is key, as it will allow scientists to see tell-tale
combinations of different gases - known as "biosignatures" - such as
oxygen and methane.
"The James Webb Space
Telescope does have the capability to measure those key
said Nikole Lewis, an
astronomer at Cornell University.
"It's within scope
for the James Webb Space Telescope to find hints of life on
James Webb Space Telescope construction, 2011.
Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Getty Images)
NASA isn't calling Webb a replacement for Hubble, rather an
extension of what it's accomplished.
While Hubble orbits the
earth at 570 kilometers above, Webb will sit 1.5 million kilometers
away, at the
Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point. The L2
is the region where the gravitational pull from the earth and the
sun balance to create the ideal long-term position for telescopes.
From this location, Webb will be able to study planets outside of
our solar system, as well as light that has been traveling for
almost the entire history of the universe.
"Webb will reveal new
and unexpected discoveries, and help mankind understand the
origins of the universe and our place in it," said NASA in a
James Webb Space Telescope construction, 2013.
Credit: Bloomberg / Getty Images)
The idea for the Webb Telescope came about over three decades ago,
and its construction involved 1,200 scientists, engineers, and
technicians from 14 countries and more than 28 U.S. states.
The aim was to build a
telescope that could capture light emanating from the first galaxies
in the universe, and the effort has cost $10 billion.
It is the largest space telescope in history, and is estimated to be
100 times more powerful than Hubble.