After decades of careful planning and development, the highly anticipated launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the most powerful astronomical observatory in history, is nigh.
With 100 times the observational power of the Hubble Space Telescope, JWST is currently on track to bid farewell to Earth on Halloween 2021; after blasting off, it will travel to a gravitational eddy called the second Lagrange point (L2) located nearly one million miles from Earth.
From that distant perch, the instrument will be able to resolve never-before-seen details about a range of astronomical targets, from potentially spotting the first generation of stars ever to shine in the early universe to the most tantalizing exoplanets in our own galaxy, some of which could potentially be habitable.
“The James Webb Space Telescope is a new kind of telescope,” said Heidi Hammel, vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA, in a video interview with VICE News.
“It’s going to be focused on the infrared part of the spectrum so it’s not quite a successor to Hubble,” she added. “It goes beyond Hubble, and it will complement what Hubble can do.”
This specialized focus on the infrared spectrum is crucial for peering deeper into the cosmic past than ever before, because light gets stretched out into longer, infrared wavelengths as it journeys from the early universe to modern Earth. Because the light that JWST will capture is incredibly old, emitted by stars and galaxies that existed more than 13 billion years ago, the observatory provides a way of looking back in time as well as through space.
“The deeper you look, the further back in time you are looking,” said Matt Mountain, the president of AURA, in the interview. “James Webb is the ultimate time machine. We are hoping it will reveal this whole class of galaxies that have basically vanished from view from the Hubble Space Telescope.”
Mountain and Hammel are part of an enormous international collaboration of scientists who have worked on JSWT, which spans NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, among other institutions. Moreover, once the telescope is launched, interdisciplinary scientists from around the world will be eager to use its observational superpowers to help resolve persistent mysteries about the universe on both local and far-flung scales.
Check out the interview for more insights into the design, capabilities, and nerve-wracking deployment schedule of the JWST once it is safely in space (fingers crossed!).