NASA’s most powerful telescope ever ready to reveal unseen corners of the universe

After a sequence of delays (so many delays!), NASA’s revolutionary James Webb Space Telescope is lastly on observe to launch on Dec. 24. The bold successor to the Hubble telescope guarantees to without end alter our information of the universe. Decades of work has led to the launch and shortly, astronomers worldwide might be observing their TVs, holding their breath as the telescope heads to house. 

“To me, launching Webb might be a major life occasion — I’ll be elated, of course, when that is profitable, however it is going to even be a time of deep private introspection,” mentioned Mark Voyton, Webb observatory integration and check supervisor at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Twenty years of my life will all come down to that second.”

Armed with unprecedented infrared imaging energy built-in with state-of-the-art equipment, Webb will journey 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth to give us entry to the deepest, darkest and oldest secrets and techniques of house. 

It’s outfitted to peer previous the cosmic darkish ages and doc the first specks of mild to flood the universe, see stars kind behind mud clouds Hubble could not penetrate, zoom into supermassive black holes with unparalleled precision, detect galaxies invisible to the bare eye and start cataloging planetary systems in search of liveable exoplanets.


“We do not know precisely when the universe made the first stars and galaxies — or how, for that matter. That is what we’re constructing JWST to assist reply.”

John Mather, senior venture scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope

While different house probes, such the 1989 Cosmic Background Explorer, have technically studied a larger distance into the universe than Webb will, this telescope “was designed not to see the beginnings of the universe, however to see a interval of the universe’s historical past that we have now not seen but,” mentioned John Mather, senior venture scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope.



A timeline of the universe. Webb will supply us entry to the area earlier than the darkish ages.


Think of it as the distinction between trying up at the stars from a light-saturated New York City, then from a darkish forest glen. Standing beneath the shadows of dense greenery, you’d see a myriad extra sparkles despite the fact that you are viewing the similar sky — you are simply viewing it from a brand new lens unfiltered by mild air pollution. 

Imagine a lens that may look out into the depths of house, unfiltered. One day, Webb might even assist us reply a probably chilling query: Are we alone in the universe?



A 2017 picture of Webb in “full bloom.” The 18-segmented gold mirror is designed to seize infrared mild from the first galaxies that fashioned in the early universe and can assist the telescope peer inside mud clouds the place stars and planetary programs are forming at the moment.

NASA/Desiree Stover

How to watch NASA launch the James Webb Space Telescope

The raise off try is scheduled for this Christmas Eve, Dec. 24 at 4:20 a.m. PT (7:20 a.m. ET). You’ll have the option to watch the momentous launch online on NASA TV, and we’ll even be masking the occasion over at CNET Highlights, one of our YouTube channels.

Here’s that point round the world:

  • US: 4:20 a.m. PT (7:20 a.m. ET)
  • Brazil: 9:20 a.m. (Federal District)
  • UK: 12:20 p.m.
  • South Africa: 2:20 p.m.
  • Russia: 3:20 p.m. (Moscow)
  • UAE: 4:20 a.m. 
  • India: 5:50 a.m.
  • China: 8:20 p.m.
  • Japan: 9:20 p.m.
  • Australia: 11:20 p.m. AEDT  

In the meantime, learn on to be taught why NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope may nicely be the most vital mission of our era.

Telescope or time machine?

Every time you have a look at the moon, you are trying again in time as a result of mild would not journey instantaneously. The farther the mild supply, the longer it takes for its mild to attain you.

Down on Earth, if somebody throughout the room switched on a lightbulb, it could take an infinitesimally quick time for its illumination to hit your eye. But if somebody had been to stand on the moon and swap on a lightbulb, it could take 1.3 seconds for you to see it again on Earth. In essence, each time moonlight reaches your eye, you are trying again in time by 1.3 seconds — and that is simply the moon, some 238,855 miles (nearly 384,400 km) away.

The James Webb Space Telescope can look a lot farther into deep house, about 13.7 billion light-years away, which implies it may well look 13.7 billion years again in time. That’s simply 100 million years after the universe was born.  


An artist’s conception of the James Webb Space Telescope flying by way of house.

Adriana Manrique Gutierrez, NASA Animator

As it searches for clues to what occurred proper after the Big Bang, it’s going to use natural cosmic flashlights called quasars to watch the epoch unfold. Thought to be powered by supermassive black holes, quasars reside in the facilities of galaxies and emit immensely luminous mild.

“If you need to examine the universe, you want very vivid background sources,” said Camilla Pacifici, who’s affiliated with the Canadian Space Agency and who works as an instrument scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “A quasar is the excellent object in the distant universe as a result of it is luminous sufficient that we will see it very nicely.”


An artist’s idea of a galaxy with an excellent quasar at its heart. Using the distinctive capabilities of Webb, scientists will examine six of the most distant and luminous quasars in the universe.

NASA, ESA and J. Olmsted (STScI)

Plus, thanks to a protracted checklist of high-intensity tools, Webb will not simply be taking footage of the distant universe as is; Webb is programmed to make use of infrared imaging.

Infrared signatures

Arguably the most essential characteristic of Webb is its infrared imaging capabilities — the main motive it may well seize such wealthy, unfiltered glimpses of the historic universe.

As cosmic our bodies get farther away from Earth, together with the relaxation of house’s cloth, the mild illuminating them stretches out concurrently, leading to a phenomenon called redshift. Redshift has to do with the manner mild on the electromagnetic spectrum exists in wavelengths, which kind of appear like curvy zigzags. 

On one finish of the spectrum, we have now blue mild, and on the different finish, crimson mild. Blue mild wavelengths are shorter, so you may assume of them as having a ton of slender, pointy waves on the zigzag. Red mild has longer, stretched-out wavelengths. 

As the universe expands, quasars’ wavelengths of blue mild slowly stretch out like pulling on a rubber band — and as they get longer, they turn out to be redder. Once these wavelengths get actually far on the crimson finish of the spectrum, they’re going to enter what’s known as the infrared mild area. 

Unfortunately, the human eye cannot see infrared mild, and Hubble can see solely a portion of it. Webb is designed for the job.


A comparability of Hubble’s seen and infrared views of the Monkey Head Nebula. While Hubble has some infrared capabilities, they’re nothing in contrast to Webb’s.


It will pierce by way of mud clouds to examine objects in house illuminated by mild in the infrared area, and since infrared info may reveal bodily properties, Webb will determine whether or not molecules like water are current on faraway planets. And that is simply the starting.

While there are some hypotheses about what Webb may discover, like the manner particles as soon as reionized to kind stars, the discoveries it makes will doubtless be of issues we by no means even thought to ask about.

“We assume that the tiny ripples of temperature [other telescopes like COBE] noticed had been the seeds that finally grew into galaxies,” Mather mentioned. But as a result of these probes weren’t armed with infrared imaging, “we do not know precisely when the universe made the first stars and galaxies — or how, for that matter. That is what we’re constructing JWST to assist reply.”

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Breakdown of Webb’s specs and its position to find alien life

For the unfiltered impact, the worldwide workforce behind the spacecraft built-in many of Webb’s devices with its high-tech infrared imaging processors. Here are some specifics.

Webb’s mirror: 21.3 toes (6.5 meters) throughout, with 18 gold-plated hexagonal segments that gather infrared mild. NASA calls it a “mild bucket.”

Sunshield: A five-layer steel umbrella the measurement of a tennis court docket to defend the probe from the warmth of the solar, the Earth and the moon.

Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam): Webb’s main imager that may detect the earliest stars and galaxies forming.

Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec): This software can use infrared info to inform scientists on bodily properties like chemical composition and temperature of galactic our bodies.

Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI): This has each a digicam and spectrograph that may detect objects in the mid-infrared electromagnetic area.

Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS): This one’s thought to be significantly  helpful in exoplanet detection.

Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS): Used for navigation.

A 3D rendering of how James Webb will look in house as soon as absolutely deployed.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

Data despatched again to Earth from the James Webb Space Telescope will promptly be accessible to researchers throughout the globe. A wide selection of minds will closely scrutinize it to unravel mysteries like: Are there early universe stars that collapsed into black holes we have not studied earlier than? Is there life anyplace else in the universe? Are there planets past our Milky Way galaxy conducive to supporting life in the future? 

The latter two come into play when Webb begins utilizing a special method to infrared detection — warmth signatures.

“If we see the signatures of thermochemical equilibrium, we might conclude that the planet is simply too sizzling to be liveable,” Renyu Hu, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “Vice versa, if we don’t see the signature of thermochemical equilibrium and likewise see signatures of gasoline dissolved in a liquid-water ocean, we might take these as a powerful indication of habitability.”

Lifting off a priceless mission

Right now, Webb is stationed at the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana. It’s folded away in the tip of an Ariane 5 Rocket, awaiting orders for liftoff. 

Equal to this telescope’s grandeur is its difficult — and costly — deployment sequence. Its countdown will signify the end result of a long time of engineering, planning and over $9.8 billion in funding.

“Twenty years of my life will all come down to that second.”

Mark Voyton, Webb observatory integration and check supervisor at NASA Goddard

After the liquid-fueled engine of the Ariane 5 roars and the launch automobile enters house, the Webb telescope might be uncovered to the void, then detach. Next, it’s going to energy its personal motor and regulate its construction because it travels ahead. 


The Ariane 5 rocket on which Webb might be launched, in French Guiana.


Over the following 30 days, whereas slowly unfurling from its origami-like folds, it’s going to journey to an orbit round the solar at what’s called the second LaGrange point. This spot is particular. From there, Webb has a transparent, uninterrupted view out into house, and its sunshield can defend it from the mild and warmth of Earth, the solar and the moon. 


Webb will orbit the solar 1.5 million kilometers (1 million miles) away from the Earth at what’s known as the second Lagrange level, or L2. Note: This graphic is not to scale.


Because infrared mild can typically be detected as warmth, Webb should be saved at a low temperature. 

NASA mentioned it is going to have to conduct about six months of different scientific operations, like optics checks and calibrations of Webb’s devices, earlier than moving into the thick of the mission. 

But first, this month’s dangerous launch should be flawless.


NASA engineer Ernie Wright appears on as the first six flight-ready main mirror segments of Webb are prepped to start last cryogenic testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham

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