NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2021, will probe the cosmos to uncover the history of the universe from the Big Bang to alien planet formation and beyond. It will focus on four main areas: first light in the universe, assembly of galaxies in the early universe, birth of stars and protoplanetary systems, and planets (including the origins of life.)
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana, then take 30 days to fly a million miles to its permanent home: a Lagrange point, or a gravitationally stable location in space. It will orbit around L2, a spot in space near Earth that lies opposite from the sun. This has been a popular spot for several other space telescopes, including the Herschel Space Telescope and the Planck Space Observatory.
The powerful $8.8 billion spacecraft is also expected to take amazing photos of celestial objects like its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. Luckily for astronomers, the Hubble Space Telescope remains in good health and it's probable that the two telescopes will work together for JWST's first years. JWST will also look at exoplanets that the Kepler Space Telescope found, or follow up on real-time observations from ground space telescopes.
JWST's science mandate is principally divided among four areas:
- First light and reionization: This refers to the early stages of the universe after the Big Bang started the universe as we know it today. In the first stages after the Big Bang, the universe was a sea of particles (such as electrons, protons and neutrons), and light was not visible until the universe cooled enough for these particles to begin combining. Another thing JWST will study is what happened after the first stars formed; this era is called "the epoch of reionization" because it refers to when neutral hydrogen was reionized (made to have an electric charge again) by radiation from these first stars.
- Assembly of galaxies: Looking at galaxies is a useful way to see how matter is organized on gigantic scales, which in turn gives us hints as to how the universe evolved. The spiral and elliptical galaxies we see today actually evolved from different shapes over billions of years, and one of JWST's goals is to look back at the earliest galaxies to better understand that evolution. Scientists are also trying to figure out how we got the variety of galaxies that are visible today, and the current ways that galaxies form and assemble.
- Birth of stars and protoplanetary systems: The Eagle Nebula's "Pillars of Creation" are some of the most famous birthplaces for stars. Stars come to be in clouds of gas, and as the stars grow, the radiation pressure they exert blows away the cocooning gas (which could be used again for other stars, if not too widely dispersed.) However, it's difficult to see inside the gas. JWST's infrared eyes will be able to look at sources of heat, including stars that are being born in these cocoons.
- Planets and origins of life: The last decade has seen vast numbers of exoplanets discovered, including with NASA's planet-seeking Kepler Space Telescope. JWST's powerful sensors will be able to peer at these planets in more depth, including (in some cases) imaging their atmospheres. Understanding the atmospheres and the formation conditions for planets could help scientists better predict if certain planets are habitable or not.
Instruments on board
The JWST will come equipped with four science instruments.
- Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam): Provided by the University of Arizona, this infrared camera will detect light from stars in nearby galaxies and stars within the Milky Way. It will also search for light from stars and galaxies that formed early in the universe's life. NIRCam will be outfitted with coronagraphs that can block a bright object's light, making dimmer objects near those stars (like planets) visible.
- Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec): NIRSpec will observe 100 objects simultaneously, searching for the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang. NIRSpec was provided by the European Space Agency with help from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
- Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI): MIRI will produce amazing space photos of distant celestial objects, following in Hubble's tradition of astrophotography. The spectrograph that is a part of the instrument will allow scientists to gather more physical details about distant objects in the universe. MIRI will detect distant galaxies, faint comets, forming stars and objects in the Kuiper Belt. MIRI was built by the European Consortium with the European Space Agency and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
- Fine Guidance Sensor/Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS): This Canadian Space Agency-built instrument is more like two instruments in one. The FGS component is responsible for keeping the JWST pointed in exactly the right direction during its science investigations. NIRISS will scope out the cosmos to find signatures of the first light in the universe and seek out and characterize alien planets.
The telescope will also sport a tennis court-size sunshield and a 21.3-foot (6.5 meters) mirror — the largest mirror ever launched into space. Those components will not fit into the rocket launching the JWST, so both will unfurl once the telescope is in space.
James Webb the man
The JWST is named for former NASA chief James Webb. Webb took charge of the space agency from 1961 to 1968, retiring just a few months before NASA put the first man on the moon.
Although Webb's tenure as NASA administrator is most closely associated with the Apollo moon program, he is also considered a leader in space science. Even in a time of great political turmoil, Webb set NASA's science objectives, writing that launching a large space telescope should be a key goal of the space agency. [See Photos of JWST, Hubble's Successor]
NASA launched more than 75 space science missions under Webb's guidance. They included missions that studied the sun, stars and galaxies as well as space directly above Earth's atmosphere.
Additional reporting by Miriam Kramer, Space.com staff writer.