Space exploration is one of the most noble — and difficult — endeavors in human history. The stakes are high, the risks are huge and the rewards are priceless. And soon, our understanding of space may fundamentally change. On October 2018, our species will take a breathtaking new step in this ongoing journey.
There's no other way to say it: NASA is launching a satellite that will allow us to peer through time, further back than ever before. We're talking all the way back to the formation of the first stars and galaxies.
It's called the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and we went to see it in person.
When most people think of satellites observing deep space, they naturally think of the world-famous Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which launched back in April 1990. But it's not entirely accurate to call Webb the “replacement” for Hubble, and, indeed, there are several key differences between the two telescopes.
· Hubble observes the universe through optical and ultra-violet wavelengths of light, while Webb primarily relies on infrared.
· Webb is much larger than the Hubble. Hubble is about the size of a school bus, while Webb's sunshield (which is super cool, literally) is almost the size of a tennis court.
· Webb also has a much larger mirror than Hubble.
o Hubble's primary mirror is 8 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter, with a collecting area of 48.4 square feet (4.5 square meters).
o Webb's primary mirror is actually a combination of 18 smaller mirrors, creating a larger mirror with a diameter of 21 feet (6 meters).
· Webb also has a longer trip ahead of it. Hubble orbits about 353 miles (568 kilometers) above Earth, but Webb will take a six-month journey 930,000 miles (nearly 1.5 million kilometers) away from our planet to an orbit known as the second Lagrange point, or L2.
Pretty nifty stuff, right? Once Webb's in place, it's going to observe the births of the first stars and the formation of ancient galaxies. It also will analyze the physical and chemical aspects of planetary systems; in other words, we're on the lookout for alien life.
This is a monumental, ambitious task, and institutions from around the world have joined forces to make it possible. In the video above, we visit the Goddard Space Flight Center and interview some of NASA's best and brightest as they explain the history of the JWST, how it will move from Earth to space, and, most importantly, what we hope to find once it gets there.
While we were at NASA, we met some amazing people and learned a great deal about the JWST. We'll have more videos on this astonishing satellite coming up soon, so stay tuned to learn more.