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

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.

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