The James Webb Space Telescope

Space wise, nothing has got me more excited that a dog with a stick than the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Originally planned to launch in 2007 at a cost of $1 billion the most powerful space-based telescope has had to overcome many set backs and runaway costs to get to its current launch date of 2021 at an estimated cost of $9.66 billion. With a delay of 14 years and costing 9x the original estimate, you would hope this shiny piece of tech is going to be worth the wait and expand our knowledge of the universe…and make no mistake, it most certainly will.

The JWST is the spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which originally launched in 1990, is coming to the end of its operational life. JWST will greatly surpass the capabilities of its predecessor and will deepen our understanding on the Universe and the origins of life. With a primary mirror size of 6.5m, the JWST is going to be able to see further back in time and gather light at a greater resolution than anything previous.

The JWST has four primary tasks:

  • First Light & Reionisation: JWST will be a powerful time machine with infrared vision that will peer back over 13.5 billion years to see the first stars and galaxies forming out of the darkness of the early Universe.
  • Assembly of Galaxies: JWST’s unprecedented infrared sensitivity will help astronomers to compare the faintest, earliest galaxies to today’s grand spirals and ellipticals, helping us to understand how galaxies assemble over billions of years.
  • Birth of Stars & Protoplanetary Systems: JWST will be able to see right through and into massive clouds of dust that are opaque to visible-light observatories, like Hubble, where stars and planetary systems are being born.
  • Planets & Origins of Life: JWST will tell us more about the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, and even perhaps even find the building blocks of life elsewhere in the Universe. In addition to other planetary systems, Webb will also study objects within our own Solar System.

Whilst all the science being done here is breath-taking in its scope, the ‘Planets and Origins of Life’ field is what has me the most enthusiastic. I mean, you know, it is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of all time, “Are we alone?”. I don’t think JWST will resolutely answer that question comprehensively, but if it can find planets with atmospheres similar to our own and organic building blocks spread across the cosmos, then chances are that microbial life, at least, is abundant in the Universe, and that is a major stepping stone to answering that most profound of questions.

Anyway, if this has got your interest, head over to NASA’s JWST Page for more juicy info 🙂

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