The technological advancements predicted for 2018 remind us, once again, that the classic sci-fi image of the future is happening right now. As we look ahead to the year to come, NASA are preparing to look back – all the way back. In fact, a collaborative effort between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) that has been long in the making is finally nearing its launch – with it, the way we view and study space should change, allowing us to study even the first glows after the Big Bang.
The James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) is described by NASA as “the premier observatory of the next decade.” Its creators claim that it will be capable of studying every phase of the universe’s history, succeeding the Hubble Telescope and providing a field-changing resource to thousands of astronomers worldwide.
The development of the Webb has been a close collaboration between the three agencies, managed overall by NASA’s Goodard Space Flight Centre. However, making this vision a reality has pulled in expertise and support from even beyond these groups – Northrop Grumman. a leading global security company, has been the Webb’s main industrial partner, and the Space Telescope Science Institute are set the operate the great observatory once it is launched.
The high number of players involved in Webb’s development is unsurprising when you consider the number of innovative technologies that have been created for it. In essence, the creation is a vast infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror made of ultra-lightweight beryllium. To survive, this mirror has been designed as 18 separate segments, which are able to unfold and adjust to shape after launch. The telescope is extremely sensitive and accurate: its cameras and spectrometers are able to record extremely faint signals, and its Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) is able to observe up to 100 different objects simultaneously, thanks to its programmable micro-shutters. Webbs’ biggest feature, in terms of sheer scale, in a tennis court sized sunshield that reduces the heat from the sun over a million times! This incredibly powerful sunshield works alongside a cryocooler that that the telescope’s mid-infrared detectors to an extremely cold 7°K (7° Kelvin, aka -266.15° Celsius or -447.07° Fahrenheit) so they can work.
These new technologies are all essential in affording the telescope its unprecedented accuracy, and in allowing this sensitive equipment to survive the conditions of space. Now finally almost complete, the telescope will be launched in Spring 2019, on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana.
Formerly known as the “Next Generation Space Telescope”, the project was renamed after the former NASA Administrator in Sept. 2002. Despite having no experience as a scientist, the project’s namesake, James Webb, is a significant figure in NASA’s history, having been instrumental in the space program becoming the powerful organization it is today. When announcing the new name, current NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said: “Thanks to [James Webb’s] efforts, we got our first glimpses at the dramatic landscape of outer space…Indeed, he laid the foundations at NASA for one of the most successful periods of astronomical discovery.”
Webb was the NASA Administrator between 1961 – 1968, a crucial period for the organisation that was defined by the space-race and the build-up to the Apollo 11 moon landing. Founded only three years earlier, the space race placed NASA in the global eye, and President Kennedy wanted to ensure their success. Rather than placing a top scientist in charge of the organsation, Kennedy looking for someone with the right legal and managerial know-how. A businessman by experience, with a background as an attorney, Webb was Kennedy’s ideal candidate. The President made it clear to Webb that he saw the role as a policy job, dealing with organization and politics on a national and international scale, and thus allowing NASA to achieve what it needed.
Bemused by the appointment, Webb never the less rose to the challenge. Despite the ten-year deadline to put a man on the moon, Webb was determined not to run a “one-shot program”. Instead, he made sure that the funding and attention NASA received was put to more than the space race alone: thanks to his efforts, at the height of the Apollo program, the agency had 35,000 employees and more than 400,000 contractors across the U.S., and by the time he retired, NASA had launched more than 75 space science missions studying everything from our atmosphere to the galaxies beyond our own. On top of this, the agency invested in robotic spacecraft and had begun the initiative to develop their first-ever large space telescope. All of this allowed NASA to live on beyond the space race, and to be the vastly developed agency it is today. Webb may not have held a background in science, but his vision and organisation gave staggering amounts to the scientific world: as O’Keefe said, it is a fitting honour that the next giant step should be named after him.