It’s been almost twenty-six years since the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into space, and in that time, some of the most-important breakthroughs in astronomy have been made as a result of the images the telescope has taken. However, technology has progressed immensely since Hubble was launched, and the telescope is starting to show its age, which is why NASA has spent the last decade or so developing its successor: the James Webb Space Telescope. Designed to be 100 times more sensitive than its predecessor, the JWST will provide us with the information we need to unlock the secrets of the universe, and will fuel the next generation of astronomy breakthroughs when it launches in October of 2018.
The biggest space mission ever attempted is getting ready for launch. The James Webb Space Telescope, or Webb, has been built with one goal in mind: to peer into the farthest reaches of the galaxy in order to glean clues about what the universe looked like in its very earliest days. And because Webb has been engineered to be 100 times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope, the granddaddy of all space telescopes, it may even be able to detect signs of life. “If you put something this powerful into space, who knows what we can find? It’s going to be revolutionary because it’s so powerful,” said Matt Mountain, director of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C., in an interview with Science magazine. Webb is also unique in its design. It has been engineered to be lighter and more flexible than its famous predecessor. Its mirrors are made of beryllium and coated with gold so that they not only reflect better, but also provide a view of the infrared spectrum. Webb’s instruments have been constructed to work at -382ºF. The sunshield that will protect those intricate instruments is also huge: It’s the size of a tennis court.