Science

Get ready to find E.T. with the James Webb Space Telescope

JWST's golden mirrors
JWST's golden mirrors
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Testing the JWST's optical systems
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Testing the JWST's optical systems
The full scale model of JWST in front of the Austin skyline
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The full scale model of JWST in front of the Austin skyline
NASA's thermal vacuum testing chamber was upgraded and remodeled to test JWST
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NASA's thermal vacuum testing chamber was upgraded and remodeled to test JWST
JWST cryogenic mirror testing
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JWST cryogenic mirror testing
The "IEC" houses all of the electronics for the Webb telescope's scientific instruments
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The "IEC" houses all of the electronics for the Webb telescope's scientific instruments
JWST will reveal more of the detail within views like this one captured by Hubble
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JWST will reveal more of the detail within views like this one captured by Hubble
JWST's golden mirrors
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JWST's golden mirrors
The "Big Red" chamber that tests JWST equipment to withstand very cold temperatures
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The "Big Red" chamber that tests JWST equipment to withstand very cold temperatures
JWST components being tested under extreme conditions
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JWST components being tested under extreme conditions
A rendering of the JWST in space
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A rendering of the JWST in space
A Guinness record for largest science lesson ever (shown above) was set at the model of the JWST at SXSW
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A Guinness record for largest science lesson ever (shown above) was set at the model of the JWST at SXSW
JWST mirror canisters
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JWST mirror canisters
JWST's secondary mirror
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JWST's secondary mirror
Bobak Ferdowsi, aka NASA Mohawk Guy, visits the full-scale model of the JWST at SXSW
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Bobak Ferdowsi, aka NASA Mohawk Guy, visits the full-scale model of the JWST at SXSW
A clear reflection on JWST's secondary mirror
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A clear reflection on JWST's secondary mirror
A giant "erector set" structure supports JWST test components
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A giant "erector set" structure supports JWST test components
The truck that will transport the JWST
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The truck that will transport the JWST

NASA astronomers involved in the mission of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) say the successor to the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes will likely enable mankind to finally answer the existential question "Are we alone?" within this generation.

That was one of the clear themes in a recent panel discussion on the telescope at the South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, where a full scale model of the JWST was also on display outdoors all week long.

Matt Mountain, NASA's Telescope Scientist for the JWST, told a conference room full of space enthusiasts that "the James Webb Space Telescope will have a key role" in answering that question. Mountain explained that JWST is nearly three times the size of Hubble and better equipped to identify the spectrum signature of "living planets."

At the core of the advanced technologies aboard the telescope is a Near Infrared Camera. It's one of the tools JWST will use to capture sight of distant planets passing in front of stars, then analyze the data to be able to identify worlds where the signatures of life, like water and methane, are present.

Alberto Conti, the Innovation Scientist for the JWST, said that the mission of the telescope is of course broader than just searching for life. It will also attempt to search out evidence of the first stars, and look for insights into the formation of galaxies and planets as well as life.

Conti explained that one of the difficulties astronomers have had in looking into the formation process of planets is the presence of infrared "dust" that essentially blocks their view. JWST's cameras will be able to lift that infrared shroud to provide a better view.

The full scale model of JWST in front of the Austin skyline
The full scale model of JWST in front of the Austin skyline

Blake Bullock spoke on behalf of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems about some of the challenges of actually constructing the JWST. One of the key concerns for engineers involves managing the extreme temperature disparity between the sun-facing side and the "dark side" of the telescope, particularly given the sensitivity of its infrared camera.

The JWST has also been designed to fold up to be able to fit into a rocket and then to unfold itself upon deployment. It is scheduled for launch in 2018, when it will fly a million miles from Earth and set up shop to start sending images of deep space back to us.

4 comments
DaveBG
I am happy that this telescope will be created. Sometime past years they were talking to stop funding and now i see some light!
Phyzzi
I'm not against the SETI program, or the desire to find other habitable planets, but focusing on this aspect of the JWST missions plan minimizes the capability and promise of this incredible project.
Paul Bedichek
I look forward to the 2018 launch of this telescope. I think it well worth the 8billion it will cost but it only has so much liquid helium (or whatever) how long will that last 3 years? If it's 8 years that is still too short,people will demand it be kept alive but NASA has said that it won't be designed to accept a repair,refueling mission.I understand, it is way over budget and years behind it's original launch window and they say it's too late for modifications,but I'm predicting right now will send out a refueling crew and they should make accommadations for this.
Paul Bedichek
After posting this comment about how long JWST will last I visited the website to do a little research.They don't use up coolant.It's a closed loop system the limiting factor is fuel to keep it at the right place at L2.They said it should last 5 to 10 years then Nobel prize winner John Mather said "it will last at least 10 years " Which means it will probably last considerably longer as NASA scientists are conservative on mission performance.It could be refueled in theory "probably by robots". If it had been designed for refueling it would have cost a lot more and it's too delicate for it.So if it lasts 15 years that means it will fail 20 years from now after a fabulous mission and by that time our technology will have progressed and a new telescope will be constructed (we hope).