To Boldly Go: NASA set to launch James Webb Space Telescope in 2018

Scientists test and assemble the James Webb Space Telescope mirrors. / NASA

 

If you’re looking for a job with loose deadlines, now might be the time to apply for a major space agency.

The North American Space Agency, more fondly known as NASA, has announced the completion of the James Webb Space Telescope, or the JWST, which has been in production for about 20 years. Formerly known as the Next Generation Space Telescope, the massive instrument was renamed in 2002 after a former NASA administrator, James Webb. The project, which is expected to cost nearly $9 billion by the end of its five year mission, was nearly scrapped in 2011 when the United States congress became concerned with cost overruns. The original budget for the telescope was only $1.6 billion. Physics Today says the telescope was originally slated to launch in 2011, but was nowhere near completion. The telescope will now undergo two years of testing to ensure it’s ready for launch.

The JWST is a collaborative project between NASA, The European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA)  that will feature a primary mirror that is seven times larger than that of the Hubble Space Telescope. Also included are technologies contributed by the CSA: the Fine Guidance Sensor and Near-Infrared Imager, as well as the Slitless Spectrograph.

NASA says on their website that the telescope features a number of technologies that were developed specifically for it; “[The telescope’s] biggest feature is a tennis court sized five-layer sunshield that attenuates heat from the Sun more than a million times.” The shade will keep the telescope cool for the approximately 10 years it will be in space. Unlike Hubble, the JWST is not designed to be serviced during its mission. Physics Today says its advanced technology will make the JWST  “capable of probing the chemical composition of the atmospheres of exoplanets and observing the birth of stars and planets.” In essence, this new telescope is Star Trek without the away team. The telescope can get started on the Enterprise’s continuing mission to “explore strange new worlds,” and “seek out new life and new civilizations,”  and is one more step in humanity’s journey to the stars.

 

The project’s mission:

  • Search for the first galaxies or luminous objects formed after the Big Bang.
  • Determine how galaxies evolved from their formation until now
  • Observe the formation of stars from the first stages to the formation of planetary systems
  • Measure the physical and chemical properties of planetary systems, including our own Solar System, and investigate the potential for life in those systems

 

US President Barack Obama said in October that his administration was committed to the space program and highlighted the importance of keeping science prominent in school in the United States.

“I still have the same sense of wonder about our space program that I did as a child,” the President said. “It represents an essential part of our character — curiosity and exploration, innovation and ingenuity, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and doing it before anybody else.”

The President recommitted to getting Americans to Mars and back by the 2030s. “Scientific discovery doesn’t happen with the flip of a switch; it takes years of testing, patience and a national commitment to education.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is on track for its scheduled launch in October of 2018 on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana.

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