Going Where No Telescope Has Gone: The James Webb Space Telescope Launches Tomorrow

“NASA is launching a time machine,” explains Dr. Erica Nelson, an Assistant Professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. Nelson is referring to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), currently set to launch on December 25th at 7:20 a.m. EST (1220 GMT). 

The telescope will be used to help give information about the formation of some of the earliest galaxies in our universe, working as a pseudo-time machine. This telescope is designed to be a successor of the infamous Hubble telescope, using different instruments to see new things in our universe. As Nelson researches galaxy formation and the formation of supermassive black holes, this telescope will be impactful in her research. The JWST will also help answer some of the biggest questions within astronomy and astrophysics, including possible places for the origins of life. 

The telescope began to be developed in 1996, with a launch date initially scheduled for 2007. Due to setbacks and a major redesign in 2005, the launch was significantly delayed. The telescope was named after James Webb, the second administrator at NASA, who also led the agency during the Apollo programs. The telescope resulted from collaborations between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). NASA’s full cost estimate is around $9.7 billion for the telescope, with the ESA and CSA contributing €700 million and CA$200 million. To save space and payload, the telescope will be folded into, and launched with, the Ariane 5 space vehicle. 


James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Telescope is set to launch on Christmas day. (Credit: NASA)


Telescope Origami 

Folding a telescope can be somewhat tricky, as the James Webb Space Telescope stands three stories high and is about the size of a tennis court. It is around the same mass as the Hubble telescope, but its purpose is very different. While the Hubble telescope looks at near UV, visible, and infrared light, the James Webb telescope will look at lower light frequency, from long-wavelength visible light to mid-infrared light. Simply put, the James Webb Space Telescope will look at objects that are too old and distant for the Hubble to see due to a phenomenon called red-shift (explained later). The telescope does this by using a primary mirror made of 18 hexagonal mirror segments. The telescope also has a sun-shield, which will help it maintain the cold temperature it needs to work. This sun-shield is made from a special polymer from Dupont. 

“In just four days, JWST, currently in a rocket in French Guiana folded up like origami, will be blasted into space,” Nelson told The Debrief. “As it’s hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour, the telescope will assemble itself, beginning by unfurling a five-layer sun-shield, each layer the thickness of tin foil.” 

The small hexagonal mirror pieces, plus the thin sun shield, make the telescope much easier to fold. After it is launched, the telescope will be deployed on its million-mile journey for 30 days to a particular point called the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point. 

From this point, the James Webb Space Telescope can take measurements using its many instruments. The data from this telescope will be downloaded to the NASA Deep Space Network and then distributed to astronomers worldwide to use for research. Like the Hubble telescope, scientists worldwide can submit requests for specific observations. This is especially helpful for scientists looking at black hole formation or galaxy formation. Astronomers like Nelson hope to use this data to see what the universe was like eons ago. 

“I can’t wait to look through this portal close to the beginning of time to see the formation of the first galaxies and supermassive black holes in the history of the cosmos,” Nelson explained. 

The telescope is designed to output around 458 gigabits of data per day for the proposed ten full years of its mission. 

The mission has four goals: 

  • looking at light from the first galaxies and the Big Bang, 
  • studying galaxy formation, 
  • studying star and black hole formation, 
  • studying planetary systems and looking into possible origins of life.

The James Webb Space Telescope can give important answers to some of the biggest questions the scientific community has been asking for decades. 

Red-Shifts and Time Travel 

The reason that the telescope can see back in time is due to something called red-shift. As our universe ages, it expands out. This means that older objects have expanded farther and are viewed as red-shifted, where the light from these objects is easier to see in infrared. As the James Webb Space Telescope is designed to target red-shifted objects and see in infrared, it can find older parts of our universe and answer questions about how galaxies, like ours, are formed. As our universe is vast, the James Webb Space Telescope helps to narrow our views, allowing us to see new things we’ve never seen before. 

The Launch Vehicle 

The launch vehicle, Ariane 5, will be used to get the telescope in space. 

The Ariane 5 is the ESA’s contribution to the mission. It’s been one of the most reliable space vehicles in history, with over 80 consecutive launches. The rocket is a two-stage rocket with two solid fuel boosters. 

The Ariane 5’s only payload will be the telescope, which will make the mission relatively easy. The launch is happening in French Guiana because the equator can help give the rocket an extra push due to the Earth’s rotation. 

This Christmas will bring not only glad tidings but also a new era in astronomy and astrophysics. The James Webb Space Telescope can help researchers like Nelson begin to create models and simulations from the telescope data to better see and understand the movements of the universe. It can help us better determine how the Milky Way and our Earth began and what sort of future our solar system may have in store.


Kenna Castleberry is the Science Communicator at JILA and a staff writer at The Quantum Daily and The Deep Tech Insider. She has written various pieces on diversity in deep tech, covering stories from underrepresented communities, as well as discussing how science fiction contributes to the reputations of deep technologies. Follow her on Twitter @kennaculture