National Geographic News

Marc Kaufman

National Geographic

Published February 4, 2014

It will see back in time farther than any space telescope ever has before—back to the first light following the big bang.

It will watch the first stars and galaxies form.

And it will hunt for distant habitable planets by peering into their atmospheres.

Expectations are high for the science that will come from the $8.7 billion James Webb Space Telescope—the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The telescope's four main science instruments are now all in one place, as are its 18 mirror sections. When assembled in space, they will create the largest orbiting mirror ever seen.

This long-awaited coming together is taking place in a vast clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Center in suburban Maryland. The last pieces have arrived, and now the two- to three-year task of assembling the telescope has begun.

Artist's impression of the James Webb Space Telescope.
Artist's impression courtesy Northrop Gruman, NASA
Artist's impression of the James Webb Space Telescope.

On Monday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Senator Barbara Mikulski, Senior Project Scientist and Nobel laureate John Mather, and the Webb team celebrated this milestone. And, with equal enthusiasm, they anticipated the science that will come in once the Webb telescope is in orbit, about one million miles from Earth.

With a mirror six times larger in area than the Hubble's, the Webb telescope's possibilities are dramatic:

1. The James Webb Space Telescope is designed to see to the time when stars began to form in the universe.

Astronomers put that time at about 300 million years after the big bang, the period when the universe emerged from its dark ages. The Hubble has been able to see back to 800 million years after the big bang, an unprecedented feat but considerably less than the capability of the Webb telescope.

The first stars in the universe are believed to have been 30 to 300 times as massive as our sun and millions of times as bright. They would have burned for only a few million years before dying in tremendous explosions, or supernovae. The Webb will be able to detect the earliest of these explosions.

Photo of James Webb Space Telescope's primary mirror segments.
Photograph by NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham
NASA engineer Ernie Wright looks on as the first six mirror segments are prepped for final cryogenic testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

2. The Webb can peek inside galaxies.

The Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes have already identified many tiny galaxies that were pumping out new stars at a surprising rate more than 13 billion years ago. These galaxies are only one-twentieth the size of the Milky Way, but they probably contain a billion stars crammed together.

The Webb's large mirror is designed to see longer wavelength, invisible-to-the-eye infrared light, which can be used to see farther and to see through thick cosmic dust. This means the telescope will be able to see into the star-creating centers of galaxies as never before.

Webb telescope officials describe their goal as learning about the first galaxies when they were just babies. The Hubble telescope has been looking at toddlers.

3. Scientists now are convinced that each galaxy has, at its center, a supermassive black hole.

The Webb will test why and how these monster black holes came to exist. A favored theory says that the early massive supernovae spewed out chemical elements newly formed in the first stars before they collapsed into black holes or were destroyed.

The newborn black holes are theorized to have then consumed the gas, dust, and stars around them, becoming extremely bright objects called mini-quasars. Mini-quasars are suspected to have grown and then merged to become the huge black holes found in the centers of galaxies.

Understanding the connection between newly formed galaxies and the supermassive black holes at their centers would be an enormous breakthrough in astronomy.

Photo of the Near Infrared Camera or NIRCam.
Photograph by Lockheed Martin/NASA
This near-infrared camera instrument will fly aboard the Webb telescope.

4. The Webb will search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Using the Webb telescope's spectrograph, scientists will be able to analyze the atmospheres of the billions of exoplanets now understood to orbit stars in the Milky Way. Depending on what chemicals are identified, researchers can come to conclusions about the likelihood of Earth-like conditions. The presence of large amounts of oxygen or ozone in the atmosphere, for instance, would strongly suggest that life was present on the planet.

"We'll be able to do so many things with the Webb that were never possible before," Mather said at the Goddard gathering. "It will revolutionize astronomy and, potentially, our understanding of the universe."

The Webb telescope is scheduled to launch in 2018 from the European Space Agency spaceport in French Guiana, and will settle at a point about four times farther from the Earth than the moon. Fifteen nations have contributed to the effort, and their scientists will be able to observe and discover alongside NASA's scientists.

steve mcgraw
steve mcgraw

Can't wait! This is the kind of stuff dreams are made of. Also being in the news about the same time that an 800,000 year old footprint was just found in the U.K. What night sky did they gaze out into?

sean regan
sean regan

Webb is going to be amazing!  Hopefully its images and discoveries can revitalize mankind's interest in space exploration.  Its sad to think that only $8.7 billion dollars (in comparison to the hundreds of billions spent on war) can build a telescope that will answer/clarify so many questions about the universe.  What would a $100 billion telescope be able to do?

Praveen Sethi
Praveen Sethi

Webb' discoveries  will prove to be a great step towards finding of the mysteries of galaxies. 

mike Carscallen
mike Carscallen

Maybe it can find some of those socks I'm always losing in the dryer. 

Fong Cheuk Lam
Fong Cheuk Lam

I hope the Webb can discover lots of cool thing in space.

Don Poolton
Don Poolton

Hope all goes well with the launch.  Looking forward to seeing the pics received

Babu Ranganathan
Babu Ranganathan

SCIENCE SHOWS THAT THE UNIVERSE CANNOT BE ETERNAL because it could not have sustained itself eternally due to the law of entropy (increasing net energy decay, even in an open system). Einstein showed that space, matter, and time all are physical and all had a beginning. Space even produces particles because it’s actually something, not nothing. Even time had a beginning! Time is not eternal.

The law of entropy doesn't allow the universe to be eternal. If the universe were eternal, everything, including time (which modern science has shown is as physical as mass and space), would have become totally entropied by now and the entire universe would have ended in a uniform heat death a long, long time ago. The fact that this hasn't happened already is powerful evidence for a beginning to the universe.

Popular atheistic scientist Stephen Hawking admits that the universe had a beginning and came from nothing but he believes that nothing became something by a natural process yet to be discovered. That's not rational thinking at all, and it also would be making the effect greater than its cause to say that nothing created something. The beginning had to be of supernatural origin because natural laws and processes do not have the ability to bring something into existence from nothing. What about the Higgs boson (the so-called “God Particle”)? The Higgs boson does not create mass from nothing, but rather it converts energy into mass. Einstein showed that all matter is some form of energy.

The supernatural cannot be proved by science but science points to a supernatural intelligence and power for the origin and order of the universe. Where did God come from? Obviously, unlike the universe, God’s nature doesn’t require a beginning.
EXPLAINING HOW AN AIRPLANE WORKS doesn't mean no one made the airplane. Explaining how life or the universe works doesn't mean there was no Maker behind them. Natural laws may explain how the order in the universe works and operates, but mere undirected natural laws cannot explain the origin of that order. Once you have a complete and living cell then the genetic code and biological machinery exist to direct the formation of more cells, but how could life or the cell have naturally originated when no directing code and mechanisms existed in nature? Read my Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM.

WHAT IS SCIENCE? Science simply is knowledge based on observation. No one observed the universe coming by chance or by design, by creation or by evolution. These are positions of faith. The issue is which faith the scientific evidence best supports.

Some things don’t need experiment or scientific proof. In law there is a dictum called prima facie evidence. It means “evidence that speaks for itself.” Of course, in the complexities of human society and relationships, prima facie may not always be what it seems.

An example of a true prima facie would be if you discovered an elaborate sand castle on the beach. You don’t have to experiment to know that it came by design and not by the chance forces of wind and water.

If you discovered a romantic letter or message written in the sand, you don’t have to experiment to know that it was by design and not because a stick randomly carried by wind put it there. You naturally assume that an intelligent and rational being was responsible.

I encourage all to read my popular Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM

Visit my newest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

Babu G. Ranganathan*
(B.A. Bible/Biology)


*I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I've been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis "Who's Who in The East" for my writings on religion and science.

Jim M
Jim M

The main problem with this report is that it completely ignores the remarkable advances in ground-based astronomy, where adaptive optics have made ground-based astronomy very competitive with space-based telescopes in the wave-lengths Webb will be observing.  We might have been better off if the Webb money had been spent on ground-based telescope systems and/or a better than Hubble space-telescope that observes in the shorter wave lengths that are very challenging for the adaptive optics systems or that can't be seen through the Earth's atmosphere at all.  But why would government spend a billion dollars on something when they can do it almost as well for 10 billion.

eric Zurlo
eric Zurlo

Can't wait to see what the Webb turns up!

Cane Kostovski
Cane Kostovski

@Babu Ranganathan  Too bad you mix religion with science. They don't mix well my friend. It appears to me that religious people always have the same arguments over and over again. In your case it seems to me that you are using the old "God of the Gaps" argument. Look up the "God of the Gaps" argument and be ready for a shock. 

I wish there was a poll of all who have seen your comments to see how many have been "converted" and how many just ignored your comments. I feel the need to express my strong reaction to your comments. Your opinions are all false and make me wonder how you can believe them, or more likely, you don't believe them, but you want to get money from any you can "convert". Good luck.

Joel Mason
Joel Mason

@Jim M Why aren't you working at NASA yet??

you're absolutely right, this report only focuses on what the headline says it's about: NASA's next big telescope. this article should only be focused on what NASA is not currently building.

please don't confuse government with scientists. the scientists want to build this, not the government.

why would we observe from an obtrusive earth environment when we would observe from space?

but what am i thinking? you already know everything on this subject. thanks for your enlightened opinion on money being spent by NASA.  

Joel Mason
Joel Mason

@Jim M that's why you work for NASA. because you're so smart, you've got this astronomy thing all figured out. go write a book and tell the world about it since you know it all.


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