NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and its many partners now are building a giant new space telescope, with launch scheduled for October, 2018 (see: “James Webb Space Telescope” at the NASA website). The construction phase of the Webb space telescope involves efforts by over 1,000 special workers in 14 nations, a total cost of 80 billion dollars, and, many industrial and academic organizations. This huge science project is being conducted during about 10 years of time; it involves use of new technologies and building several special new research instruments. Once the complex assembly is completed and fully tested, it will be transported by ship to the rocket launch site in South America, where it will be sent far into space. This new mission for science will provide important new research data for astronomy, astrophysics, and space science; its research results will go far beyond the amazing images and data obtained by the orbiting Hubble space telescope launched in 1990.
What is the Webb space telescope [1-3]?
The new space telescope will be as large as a moving van and will be placed into a specific region of space located about one million miles away from Earth. It contains small rockets to provide for final adjustment of its position. Data collected from its newly constructed high-tech mirror systems provide very high sensitivity, increased optical resolution, and longer wavelength coverage. This space instrument is specialized to detect and measure near- and mid-infrared wavelengths, since those come from the oldest stars. Data will be transmitted back to the Webb Science and Operations Center at the NASA Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, for analysis and distribution to research scientists and groups. The new Webb space telescope is planned to operate in the cold vacuum of space for 5-10 years, starting in 2018.
What will the new space telescope do for scientific research [1-3]?
At present, the Webb mission has 4 goals: (1) search for the first galaxies or luminous objects formed after the Big Bang, (2) determine how galaxies evolved from their formation until now, (3) observe the formation of stars and their planetary systems, and (4) examine the physical and chemical properties of extraterrestrial planetary systems, including investigations of their potential for life. The Webb extends the capabilities of the Hubble space telescope by having much better detection sensitivity (10-100x), optical resolution, and telescopic spectroscopy. By being able to look out to the far edges of the universe, the Webb can view and measure the very oldest stars and galaxies.
What are the chief worries about the new space telescope [1-3]?
As with any very complex and multiyear building project, unforeseen problems can arise later. The Hubble space telescope had an unanticipated problem that fortunately was able to be nicely repaired by visiting astronauts. Since the new Webb telescope will be much further away from Earth than is Hubble, it will be impossible for astronauts to fix problems. Thus, the preflight testing must be much more rigorous and extensive. However, it is never certain that everything will work and last exactly as expected; extremely unusual events could occur (e.g., collision with a large meteorite, very high bursts of different radiations from our Sun, malfunction of communication systems, etc.) and might be beyond the capabilities of adjustments during its operation in space.
Many people will ask a very natural question, “Why do we humans need a new space telescope?”. Technical answers that it will give results beyond those provided by the Hubble space telescope, will have a hollow ring to non-scientists asking this question. A better answer is that all of us, whether scientists or ordinary people, deserve to have extended knowledge and understanding about our universe; dramatic new data provided by the Webb space telescope will do just that.
Will the new findings of this space telescope justify its immense cost [1-3]?
This huge research project raises an interesting general question about scientific research. Although the 80 billion dollar budget for the Webb is cut back from the initial plans, just about everyone must admit that this cost figure is gigantic. It is reasonable to expect that the research by space scientists using data from the Webb will produce significant advances in understanding the formation and evolution of the oldest stars in our universe, the life cycles of stars, the environmental composition of different exoplanets, and possibilities for living systems on planets circling other stars.
Although accepting that answer, some scientists will ask the logical question, “How many research grants of ordinary cost and size could be made with the same 80 billion dollars?”. Their follow-up question will be, “What would be the value of the new research results collected by all those numerous small projects?”. Clearly, such questions are simply the latest in the ongoing controversy about the value of Big Science versus Small Science. Answers cannot be provided at present because so much is unknown or theoretical.
Where can good information be found about the new Webb space telescope?
There is an abundance of information available about the design, construction, and objectives of the Webb space telescope! For starters, see websites about the Webb by NASA , the Canadian Space Agency , and, the European Space Agency . These have loads of information, diagrams, videos, and the latest news about this giant research project; they are designed to be suitable and understandable for adults, students, teachers, children, and parents, as well as for scientists.
You also even can sign-up with NASA to receive e-mail newsletters with the latest updates for the Webb space research project !
For those curious about the efforts of all the numerous engineers, scientists, and technologists working with this space project, I recommend the truly outstanding article by Daniel Clery, “The Next Big Eye”, within the February 19, 2016, issue of the journal, Science. This well-illustrated piece includes a very good discussion about how these individuals are subject to increasingly large pressures as the assembly and testing advances.
The work of designing, fabricating, assembly, and testing the different components used for the Webb space telescope is an utterly fascinating story showing what humans are capable of doing! After the final assembly is completed, its testing under conditions of space while still here on Earth also will be a wondrous story. Much credit must go to the managers who coordinate all the different small and large groups working on this complex assembly project at diverse locations; they must ensure that everything fits together and functions reliably just as planned. The Webb mission should produce much exciting new understanding about our Sun, our universe, and conditions on the planets of other stars!
 “Explore James Webb New Space Telescope” is available on the internet at: http://www.jwst.nasa.gov .
 “FAQ: General Questions About Webb” is available on the internet at: http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/faq.html .
 “Webb Telescope Science Themes” is available on the internet at: http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/science.html .
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