A Deeper Look into Space - Understanding the James Webb Telescope

August 11, 2023
6 min read
By Gianluca Turcatel
A Deeper Look into Space Understanding the James Webb Telescope

Marvel at the pioneering advancements achieved in space exploration as we explore the James Webb Space Observatory. Likely being the most ambitious and complex astronomical project to date, this $8.8 billion behemoth was launched by NASA, with the cooperation of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency. The James Webb Space Observatory supersedes the Hubble Space Telescope both in complexity and potential scientific output. Equipped with a primary mirror 6.5 meters in diameter (2.7 times larger than Hubble’s), Webb boasts infrared capabilities that allow it to look further back in time to capture light that's been travelling for more than 13.5 billion years. Designed to target the farthest objects in the Universe, it's tasked with unveiling galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang, exploring the atmospheres of exoplanets, and studying other astronomical phenomena. Despite being stationed almost one million miles from Earth, it will relay groundbreaking data and breathtaking images, reshaping our understanding of the vast cosmos where we reside. The James Webb Space Observatory truly is the pinnacle of human innovation and a new milestone in our incessant quest for knowledge.

The James Webb Space Observatory, more commonly referred to as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is the much-anticipated successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. This cutting-edge feat of engineering is a multinational collaboration led by NASA, in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Primed as the premier observatory for the next decade, the James Webb space observatory will thoroughly examine every phase of cosmic history—from within our solar system to distant galaxies at the edge of the observable Universe. Fitted with a giant 6.5-meter mirror and advanced scientific instruments, JWST will provide exceptional infrared resolution and sensitivity. This will enable scientists to examine the formation of stars and planets, measure the physical and chemical properties of planetary systems, and investigate the potential for life on other worlds. The staggering reach and capacity of this observatory truly underscore its potential to revolutionize our understanding of space. From testing the limits of new technologies to peeling back the layers of cosmic mystery, the James Webb Space Observatory is a testament to human ingenuity and the enduring spirit of exploration.

James Webb vs. Hubble: Differences

james webb vs hubble differences

Distinguished as the "James Webb Space Observatory," this new marvel of technology significantly exceeds the Hubble Space Telescope's capabilities in several ways. For starters, its mirror is significantly larger than Hubble's: 6.5 meters across compared to Hubble's 2.4-meter mirror. This provides the James Webb Telescope with an ability to collect more light and see further into the universe's history—upwards of 200 million years after the Big Bang. It will also specialize in infrared observations, with the aptitude to observe high-redshift objects that are too old and distant for Hubble to detect. Such objects are usually in the process of formation: planets, stars, and even galaxies, whose light has taken billions of years to reach our planet. The location of the James Webb Space Observatory also sets it apart. While Hubble orbits Earth at an altitude of approximately 569 km (354 miles), the Webb will be around 1.5 million km (930,000 miles) away, at a spot in space called the second Lagrange point, or L2, where the combined gravitational effects of Earth and the Sun allow the telescope to maintain a stable position in relation to Earth while always facing away from the Sun. Overall, there's no doubt that the James Webb's capabilities will revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos.

Unique Features of James Webb

unique features of james webb

The James Webb Space Observatory, often touted as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, brings a set of unique features to the table that significantly amplifies our ability to peek into the depths of the universe. The most defining feature of this observatory is its large, 6.5-meter primary mirror, coated with a thin layer of gold to optimize its reflection of infrared light. Another notable feature is its five-layer sunshield, protecting the telescope from the heat of the sun and allowing the telescope's instruments to operate at incredibly cold temperatures (-370 degrees Fahrenheit). This extreme cold is necessary for detecting faint heat signals from distant stars and galaxies. However, the true scientific magic lies in its suite of four main instruments, including a near-infrared camera (NIRCam), near-infrared spectrograph, mid-infrared instrument (MIRI), and a fine guidance sensor or near-infrared imager. For instance, NIRCam can detect light from the earliest stars and galaxies, while MIRI is capable of observing objects closer to our own solar system. In July 2023 it discovered the most ancient supermassive black hole, within galaxy CEERS 1019, and formed a mere 570 million years after the Big Bang

James Webb's Key Discoveries

james webbs key discoveries

Delving deep into the cosmos, the James Webb Space Observatory is set to revolutionize our understanding of the universe. Unlike its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which primarily observes visible light, Webb is finely tuned to observe infrared light, revealing astonishing hidden vistas of the universe. One of James Webb's key discoveries is expected to stem from its ground-breaking technology that enables it to peer back over 13.5 billion years, gazing into the era of first light, when the earliest stars and galaxies were forming. Within days of coming online JWST discovered thousands of new galaxies more distant and ancient than any previously documented and revealed the atmospheric composition of planets hundreds of light-years from Earth in great detail. At the end of 2022 JWST observed the four most distant galaxies known that were born 3.4 billion years ago. JWST can peer through dust and was able to detect star formation as galaxies collide. Finally, just few days ago JWST captured the universe's outmost star, Earendel, that shines with more than twice the intensity of our Sun.

Challenges Faced by James Webb

challenges faced by james webb

The development, launch, and operation of the James Webb Space Observatory has indeed been a herculean task, fraught with challenges both expected and unforeseen. From enduring formidable delays that postponed its initial 2007 launch date to grappling with budget overflows that exacerbated its cost from $1 billion to approximately $10 billion, the path was far from smooth. Besides these formidable logistical obstacles, the technical complexity inherent to its design and deployment also demanded solutions of unparalleled sophistication. For instance, the observatory's 18 hexagonal gold-coated beryllium mirrors had to be crafted with utmost precision, for even the slightest imperfection could severely compromise the observations. Likewise, its tennis court size sunshield, designed to protect the delicate instruments from solar heat, required a meticulous folding sequence to fit into the rocket for launch and then successfully deploy once in space. The challenges didn't end there. Even the task of placing the James Webb Space Observatory a million miles away from Earth, at the second Lagrange point, was an unparalleled feat, making its communication and operation a test for the most advanced technologies known to mankind.

Conclusion: Deciphering the Cosmos

conclusion deciphering the cosmos

In conclusion, the James Webb Space Observatory is a cutting-edge piece of technology that has pushed the boundaries of what humanity knows about the universe. Named after NASA's second administrator, it carries a 6.5 meter primary mirror, far larger than that of its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. This allows it to collect more light, resulting in more detailed and higher quality observations of the cosmos. With its suite of high-precision instruments, including cameras and spectrometers covering visible to mid-infrared light, it's set to uncover previously unseen details of space. Not only will it peer deeper into the universe and farther back in time than ever before, enabling us to study the atmospheres of exoplanets or the formation of the earliest galaxies, but it'll also offer unique insights into the nature of dark matter and the possibility of life on other planets. Constructed in a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the James Webb Space Observatory is truly an international effort to take humanity's understanding of the cosmos to the next level.

Published on August 11, 2023 by Gianluca Turcatel

Gianluca Turcatel

COO & Co-Founder