In the years since the Hubble Space Telescope was first deployed on this day in 1990, it has brought revolutionary views of the universe to humanity. Its successor will allow scientists to boldly go even further.
Hubble was “the first major optical telescope to be placed in space, the ultimate mountaintop,” writes NASA. With its view of the cosmos unobstructed by clouds and light pollution, it has allowed scientists to see distant stars and galaxies and take a closer look at planets in our own solar system. Over the years, four servicing missions have kept Hubble running, but the telescope is getting old. Space technology has changed dramatically over the past quarter century.
If all goes as planned, the James Webb Space Telescope—Hubble's successor—will launch in October 2018. It was completed in November of last year and is currently undergoing an incredible number of tests to make sure it will keep running during its estimated 5 ½ to 10-year mission. They have to: unlike Hubble, writes Steve Dent for Engadget, the JWST will be positioned almost a million miles away from Earth, so it will be impossible to fix once deployed.
The machine undergoing all these tests is incredibly sophisticated. The $8.8 billion, tennis-court-sized telescope is “equipped with a 21-foot, gold-coated mirror array that can collect seven times more light than Hubble and scan the infrared spectrum to see through dust,” Dent writes. That will mean that the JWST can look much farther away than the Hubble does—so it can see farther back into time, to some of the universe’s earliest moments. Analyzing information about the first light of the universe and looking at how galaxies formed will allow scientists to understand more about how space might change in the future.
Beyond its investigations into the past, the JWST will also look at planets closer to home and even study our own solar system. It should be able to detect new exoplanets—planets outside our solar system—and even take pictures of some of them. Those pictures will be enough to tell whether the planets have atmospheres, water, even vegetation.
After environmental testing is completed, slated for this spring, the telescope will head to Houston, Texas for testing of its optics. Then on to Redondo Beach, California, for a final round of assembly and testing. The telescope is due to launch from French Guiana next year.