NASA scientists are continuing their work on the James Webb Space Telescope, said to be the most powerful telescope ever created. The telescope is said to be capable of capturing seven times more light than its successor, the Hubble Space Telescope, a factor that will aid in its expected exploration of the deepest reaches of outer space.
The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is managing the project in collaboration with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. NASA reported today that the last three mirrors necessary for assembly of the complex infrared device have been delivered, allowing them to move forward with assembly. The $8.8 billion telescope will be massive, with its largest mirror, a unique folding, 18-segmented creation, spanning over 21 feet in length and weighing in excess of 1500 pounds. The mirror is six times larger than that of the Hubble Telescope.
The spacecraft will also integrate some unique technology. The telescope will feature four primary instruments, already in place, on board for observation. These will be the Near InfraRed Camera, or NIRCam, the Near InfraRed Spectrograph, or NIRSpec, the Mid-InfraRed Instrument, or MIRI, and the Fine Guidance Sensor/Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph. All of its instruments are intended to work best in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, though some observation in the visible range of the spectrum will also be possible. Its detectors will also be capable of picking up and recording “extremely weak signals.”
Thousands of astronomers around the world are anxiously awaiting the telescope’s launch and are expected to rely on it for data. Scientists hope that it will provide new information about the origins of the universe and the evolution of Earth’s solar system, as well as bringing the possibility of exploring other solar systems that may be capable of supporting life. Many believe that it will be able to reach back in time to the first light emitted by the long-theorized “big bang.” Others are hoping that it will provide confirmation of what many scientists now believe, that each galaxy in the universe has at its center a super-massive black hole.
The Webb telescope was originally known by the name the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST), but was renamed in 2002 in honor of former NASA administrator James Webb. James Webb led the young agency between 1961 and 1968 and was best known for his work with the Apollo program, managing more than 430,000 contractors and employees and eventually landing a man on the moon. He was committed not only to winning the political race to get U.S. astronauts onto the moon before rival foreign space programs, but to advancing science as well. NASA deemed it appropriate to name its next great spacecraft, the most powerful telescope ever created, after the man that led the people of the United States into the final frontier known as outer space.
NASA’s most powerful telescope ever created is slated to launch via the Ariane 5 ECA to its orbit 100 million miles from Earth in 2018. Those working on the project say that it is on track to do so. The spacecraft has been described my NASA officials as “unlike any we’ve ever developed before.”
By Michele Wessel