Looking to Webb Telescope on Hubble 25th Anniversary
April 23, 2015

James Webb Space Telescope Progresses Toward Launch
James Webb Space Telescope Progresses Toward Launch

Before the Hubble Space Telescope, people saw the field of astronomy differently than they do today. American spacecraft did provide detailed pictures of Jupiter and Saturn, planets in our own solar system. But deep space, the place where nebulae and galaxies exist, remained mostly colorless -- until the Hubble Space Telescope. It has provided detailed and often colorful images of once unimaginable objects.

Friday marks 25 years since Hubble left the ground. It was launched on the American space agency’s Space Shuttle Discovery. The agency, also known as NASA, says the telescope can no longer be repaired in space. But a new space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, is being built and tested. Plans call for it to be launched from French Guiana in October of 2018.

The Hubble and the Webb telescopes have much in common. Scientists designed both to operate in the vacuum of outer space. In other words, they can work in an environment without air. Both telescopes use mirrors to collect and redirect light to make pictures, and radio signals to send these images back to earth. And both are powered by sunlight.

However, NASA officials say the James Webb Space Telescope is different from Hubble. Matt Greenhouse is a project scientist for the Webb telescope.

“The Webb, as we call it, is the successor to Hubble Space Telescope, and it is designed to do science that the Hubble can’t do by virtue of its design. One of the biggest differences between the Webb and the Hubble is that the Webb is designed to be an infrared telescope to see these very primordial objects, these objects that are among the oldest objects in the universe.”

To examine these distant objects, Webb will not look at visible light – the light we see. Instead, it will look at infrared light, which is given off by hot objects. After its launch, the Webb telescope will enter an orbit 1.5 million kilometers above earth’s atmosphere. That is much farther than Hubble’s orbit and will give the Webb telescope a better ability to see infrared light, says Mr. Greenhouse.

“With infrared radiation we can peer through clouds of dust in space that obscure regions where stars are being born around us today.”

The Webb telescope’s mirror is also more than six times larger than Hubble’s. This means it will be able to create images with more detail and show objects that are father away and not as bright. The mirror is made of lightweight beryllium and covered with gold. The huge device comes in pieces so that it can fit inside the Ariane 5 rocket that will carry the Webb telescope into space.

Mr. Greenhouse says the instruments must be kept extremely cold so that they can observe infrared light.

“…more than minus 200 degree Celsius, which is what we call a cryogenic temperature. The reason for that is because anything above absolute zero emits infrared light. If we didn’t cool the telescope, it would be blinded by its own infrared emission.”

New technologies combined with the larger mirror mean that the Webb telescope is more than 100 times more powerful than Hubble.

The Webb is being put together at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Matt Greenhouse says scientists are performing tests. They want to avoid the problems that the Hubble Space Telescope had when it started.

Shortly after its launch on April 24th, 1990, NASA scientists found that Hubble’s mirror was too flat -- by about the width of a human hair. Not a lot, but enough to cause problems. Space shuttle astronauts repaired the telescope in 1993. But this time, Matt Greenhouse says, mission scientists learned from the experience.

“One of the big things that we learned from the Hubble is the Hubble didn’t do something called an end-to-end optical test, where we take the entire observatory and shine light through it the way it will be done in space and make sure everything works.”

That will be important because the Webb telescope is not designed to be repaired in space like Hubble.

Mr. Greenhouse says scientists are performing tests on the Webb telescope’s optical systems. He hopes that the Webb will bring new discoveries as Hubble did before it.

Jennifer Wiseman is a senior project scientist with Hubble. She notes that it provided new information about the birth and development of stars. She says the telescope showed that the universe is expanding and suggested the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years. She says it also helped prove the existence of black holes in some galaxies.

“Hubble was capable of looking at the fast motions of gas around the center of another galaxy and to discern that that fast motion, that fast rotation of gas, could only be held in place if there were something very massive in the core. It had to be a super massive black hole.”

After 25 years in space, Hubble not only remains in orbit but is working well. Astronomers hope that both telescopes can be operating at the same time so they can work together.

Jennifer Wiseman says Hubble’s accomplishments are clear.

“I think that it causes at its best all of humanity to pause for a moment, look up and think about who we are and how we are all citizens of this one magnificent planet in a very magnificent universe.”

The new Webb space telescope is an international project. NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency have worked together to build it at an estimated cost of over $8 billion dollars.

I’m Mario Ritter.

This story was based on from reports by VOA’s Rosanne Skirble. Mario Ritter wrote it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Words in This Story

nebula – n. a cloud of gas or dust in space that can be seen by reflected or radiated light

galaxies – n. any one of a very large group of stars that make up the universe

mirror – n. a piece of glass or similar material that reflects light

vacuum – n. empty space in which there is no air, gas or other matter

infrared light – n. light radiation that is not visible to the human eye and is at a longer wavelength than visible light, associated with heat

radiation – n. energy that comes from an object in the form of waves or rays