We have all heard about the Hubble Space Telescope — one of the largest and most useful space telescopes, renowned for enabling scientists since the 1990s to study the history of the Universe. What you probably didn’t know is that Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is soon to launch into orbit on December 18, 2021. According to Amber Straughn, an astrophysicist at NASA, it will be “100 times more powerful than the Hubble,” setting the scene for a new era of astronomy.
Webb Space Telescope VS. Hubble Space Telescope:
The Webb greatly improves on the Hubble in every way (it’s been 30 years, technology has substantially improved), with the two main ones being its size and its light collection capabilities.
- Size: The Hubble is 13.2 meters long (size of a school bus) while the Webb is about 22 meters long (size of a tennis court). More important than the length of the body is the diameter of the mirrors: the Hubble’s mirror has a diameter of 2.37m while the Webb’s mirror has a diameter of 6.49m. Why does this matter? This is tantamount to 6 times the light-collecting area. In practical terms, this means that the Webb can produce much higher quality images of the Universe compared to the Hubble.
- Light collection: While the Hubble collects visible light and ultraviolet light waves, the Webb primarily collects infrared light. This allows the Webb to look further back in time compared to the Hubble because infrared light is extremely old. Why? As light moves away, it gets stretched out, becoming a longer wavelength and turning red (on the other hand, as light gets closer, it turns blue with shorter wavelengths). Since the Universe is constantly expanding, the farthest things are shifting away from us, and as such we receive the light they emit as infrared waves.
Missions of the Webb Space Telescope:
- To research planetary systems (including our own solar system) and the possible origins of life.
- To understand how planetary systems and stars form over millions of years.
- To understand how galaxies form and evolve over millions of years.
- To look for the first stars and galaxies in the Universe.
It would definitely be awesome if Webb is able to meet its goals and not break once it is in space.
Impact of the Webb Space Telescope:
- The Webb Space Telescope will be the main space observatory for the next decade, and maybe even more, for scientists all over the world.
- Any scientist in the world can fill out an application to use the Webb. As such, as long as a scientist has a good project proposal, they can conduct useful research using the Webb.
- The Webb enables scientists to piece together the history of the Universe right after the “cosmic dark ages,” in which the Universe was covered by a dark fog of gas.
A new age of astronomy is on the horizon in which most of the secrets of the Universe will hopefully be unraveled.