Unless you’ve been living under a meteor, you have probably heard about the James Webb Telescope. Pretty much everybody with even a faint interest in space viewed its first images with a feeling of wonder, and probably several utterances of “wow.” While the pictures have been spectacular, it’s also worth exploring how this telescope came about and what exactly scientists are hoping to find with it. 

A brief history of the James Webb Telescope

While first launched last Christmas, it actually took more than 25 years for the Webb Telescope to get to the launching point. Work began on it in 1996 as a joint development between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. Originally called the Next Generation Space Telescope (with a possible nod to fans of Star Trek), the telescope was later named for James Webb, the head of NASA in the ‘60s who was instrumental in creating the Apollo program.

The Webb project was supposed to cost around $1 billion and launch in 2007. But, due to delays and setbacks, construction wasn’t finished until 2016. By then, costs had risen to an astronomical (literally) figure of $10 billion.

Blue and pink nebula in space


How does the James Webb Telescope work?

If you’re thinking that maybe we didn’t need a new (and expensive) telescope because the Hubble Telescope is working just fine, you’re right and wrong. While the older model is still doing its thing in space, the James Webb Telescope is a big upgrade. In fact, it’s 100 times more powerful than the Hubble. And the reason for this has to do with infrared radiation.

This new telescope consists of many components, such as a Near Infrared Camera, a Near Infrared Spectrograph, and a coronagraph. These pieces all work together to detect objects in space that can’t be seen by the human eye, like far-out stars, planets, and nebulae. 

Infrared radiation can pass through gas and dust, which appear opaque when looking at them. The Hubble, conversely, mainly sees visible light.

Red planet with moons


What’s the goal of the James Webb Telescope?

The James Webb Telescope will spend up to 10 years studying space, with a few main goals in mind:

  • To look back in time

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this new telescope is that it can act as a time machine of sorts. It has the ability to look back more than 13 billion years so we can learn about the stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang. This will allow scientists to compare those galaxies to ours today.

  • To understand how things formed

Amazing images aren’t the only thing we will get from the James Webb Telescope. Scientists will also be able to gather data that will help them determine how planetary systems were formed. This will help us better understand the universe.

  • To find signs of life

Finally, the James Webb Telescope aims to do something that has many folks excited: It’s going to look for signs of life. But in addition to looking for actual aliens, scientists will also search for atmospheres that could be capable of sustaining life.  

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