Like many ’90s children, my love of science came from a few places. Bill Nye (BILL BILL BILL BILL), baking soda and vinegar volcanos, and my desire to be an astronaut. Well, I wanted to be an astronaut-ballerina-veterinarian, but didn’t every seven-year-old girl? Most of my exposure to space at that age came from the unbelievable photos produced by the Hubble Telescope. And I know I’m not the only one, The Hubble was NASA’s most successful PR boost since the moon landing. The pictures Hubble took amazed the world, and inspired a new generation of astronomers.
Ever since the invention of the telescope in the early 17th century, curious people have been trying to get a better picture (literally and figuratively) of the space around our world. Our atmosphere is great if you want to fly a kite or breathe oxygen, but it is very annoying if you are trying to look beyond it. The inherent turbulence makes all images of the beyond taken on Earth a little fuzzy. (Interestingly, this is why the stars appear to twinkle.) The way to get around this is obvious: put the telescope outside of the atmosphere.
The idea of a space telescope was proposed in 1923, but it wasn’t actually put into space until 1990. In its 26 years above Earth, Hubble has not only produced aesthetically amazing pictures, it has also been instrumental in many astronomical discoveries. The man the telescope is named after, Edwin Hubble, is mainly known for two discoveries: that there are many galaxies beyond our Milky Way, and that the universe is expanding. The telescope that bears his name has helped to determine the expansion rate of the universe, even though that is currently being called into question. In one of its most beautiful experiments of pointing at a seemingly empty part of the sky, it has shown us that there are more galaxies than we ever could have dreamed of.
Unfortunately, 26 is an old age for space telescopes, and NASA has said that it has no plans to service it. This means that in the next 10 years it will probably die a fiery death crashing back to Earth. Fortunately, NASA (and the Canadian and European counterparts) have announced that they have completed the main parts of its successor: The James Webb Space Telescope.
Much like the Hubble, the Webb will be a giant telescope in space, but there are a few notable differences. Hubble was designed to be updated every few years. Webb will be sent into space and then not touched for the entirety of its 10 year mission. This is because instead of being just outside the atmosphere in Earth’s orbit, Webb will be much further away. It is going to hang out watching space go by from the other side of the moon; not even in our orbit. Hubble took most of its observations in visible and ultraviolet light. Webb will look into the final frontier using infrared. The largest difference, though, is in what Webb will be able to see.
Light takes time to travel places, even if it is very fast. When we look at our cat, it takes approximately one ten-millionths of a second to reach our eyes. If Mr. Cuddles lived on Pluto it would take just under five hours. So, we would see what he was doing five hours ago. If Webb can look 13.8 billion lightyears away (which it can, probably hopefully), it will be able to tell us what the very beginning of the universe looked like. Doesn’t that idea just make you giddy?
It has other cool missions, too. Much closer to home, it will tell us the composition and history of our solar system. Further away, it will look into the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy. Lastly, and of course most importantly, it will look at the atmospheres of exoplanets and give us more information about the possibility of life on other worlds. So exciting!
It has taken 20 years to be built. Now it only needs to be tested and the final components added before its scheduled launch date of October 2018. First gravity waves, then water on Mars and now this. It is an exciting year for space science!