The James Webb Space Telescope Explained

10 things to know about the James Webb Space Telescope

Webb Explained Slide 1 (2020-03-05) by NASA/Chris GunnNASA

The James Webb Space Telescope will study every phase of cosmic history — from within our solar system to distant galaxies in the early universe. As an infrared telescope, Webb will explore science questions to help us understand the origins of the universe and our place in it.

Webb Explained Slide 2 by NASA/Adriana Manrique GutierrezNASA

Webb will answer questions about our place in the cosmos.

How did the universe begin? How do galaxies form and evolve? How do planets form? How do we fit in the cosmos? Which molecules are in the atmospheres of exoplanets that orbit other stars? Will it give new perspectives of the planets in our own solar system? 

Webb Explained Slide 3 (2019-10-11) by NASA/Chris GunnNASA

Standing at more than three stories tall and as broad as a tennis court, it is the world’s largest and most complex space science observatory ever built. It will transform our view of the universe. 

Webb Explained Slide 4 (2017-05-13) by NASA/Chris GunnNASA

18 gold-plated segments make up Webb’s iconic mirror.

The mirror is over six times bigger in area than the Hubble Space Telescope’s. Webb is about 100 times more powerful. 

Webb Explained Slide 5 (2017-05-17) by NASA/Desiree StoverNASA

Its 18 primary mirror segments are covered with a golf ball’s mass of gold, which optimizes them for reflecting infrared light (the coating is so thin that a human hair is 1,000 times thicker).

Webb Explained Slide 6 by Credit: NCSA/NASA/B. O'Shea (MSU) and M. Norman (UC San Diego)NASA

Acting like a powerful time machine, Webb seeks to detect light from the first luminous objects in the early universe and watch how galaxies have evolved through cosmic time.

Webb Explained Slide 7 by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Michael McClare (KBRwyle): Lead Producer, and Adriana Manrique Gutierrez (KBRwyle): Lead AnimatorNASA

Webb is neatly folded into a rocket to unfold in space.

The observatory will travel to an orbit about one million miles away from Earth and undergo six months of commissioning in space — unfolding its mirrors, sunshield, and other smaller systems; cooling down; aligning; and calibrating.

Webb Explained Slide 8 by NASA , ESA , G. Illingworth (UCO/Lick Observatory and the University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (UCO/Lick Observatory and Leiden University), and the HUDF09 TeamNASA

It will observe a part of space and time never seen before.

Webb’s infrared capabilities will allow it to gaze into the age when the very first stars and galaxies formed, over 13.5 billion years ago. 

Webb Explained Slide 9 by Credit: NCSA/NASA/R. Cen and J. Ostriker, (Princeton Univ.)NASA

Webb features unprecedented resolution and sensitivity.

It will shed light on how galaxies evolve, how stars and planetary systems are born, and how the building blocks of life could form on other planets, showing us things never before seen by any other telescope.

Hubble's Pillars of Creation in infrared light by NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage TeamNASA

Webb can see right through and into massive clouds of dust, where stars and planetary systems are born.

Here is Hubble’s infrared view of a stellar nursery. Webb is designed to see the infrared, a region Hubble can only peek at.

Webb Explained Slide 11 by Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Michael P. Menzel (AIMM): Producer, Michael McClare (KBRwyle): Lead Videographer, Sophia Roberts (AIMM): Videographer, and Michael P. Menzel (AIMM): Video EditorNASA

Webb is so sensitive, it could detect the heat signature of a bumblebee at the distance of the Moon (from Earth), and can see details the size of a US penny at the distance of about 25 miles or 40 kilometers! 

Webb Explained Slide 12 by Credits: NASA and JPL/CaltechNASA

Can check for the building blocks of life on other worlds

Webb will observe and conduct studies of planets located in the habitable zones of nearby stars, the regions where a planet could harbor liquid water on its surface. 

Webb Explained Slide 13 by Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach, Narration: Nicole Fonarow, Writing: Joel Green and Vonessa Schulze, and Design: Leah HustakNASA

Using a technique called transmission spectroscopy, the observatory will examine starlight filtered through planetary atmospheres to learn about their chemical compositions.

Webb Explained Slide 14 by Credits: Left: NASA/JPL-Caltech - Right: NASANASA

A powerful tool for studying the nearby universe

Scientists will use the space telescope to study planets and other bodies in our solar system to determine their origin and evolution and compare them with exoplanets, planets that orbit other stars. 

Webb Explained Slide 15 by Credits: NASA/JPL/MSSSNASA

Take Mars for example. Webb will be able to study the Red Planet’s local features. It will observe whether the atmosphere of Mars reveals any history of habitability, as well as how the atmosphere has changed over time. 

Webb Explained Slide 16 by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Michael P. Menzel (AIMM): Lead Producer, and Bailee DesRocher (USRA): Lead AnimatorNASA

Largest international space science project in U.S. history

More than 1,200 scientists, engineers, and technicians from 14 countries (and more than 29 U.S. states) have taken part in designing and building Webb. The entire project is a joint mission between NASA, the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency. 

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