The James Webb Telescope is a true marvel. For years the Hubble Space Telescope served as a window to the cosmos. The venerable space telescope provided images with uncompromising clarity, letting the layperson see the great unknown beyond the earth itself. Unfortunately, technology and progress have marched on since the introduction of the Hubble. What once was a revolutionary marvel of technology has been surpassed by NASA’s latest effort.
The James Webb Telescope is Hubble’s successor, and the advances in technology have made the images it produces something to behold. If you have even a passing interest in outer space, it is well worth paying attention to. Let’s take a closer look at seven reasons why the James Webb Telescope is such a spectacular piece of technology.
Some Background on the James Webb Telescope
Following the 1990 launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA and astronomers were already considering what the next step forward would be. The James Webb Space Telescope has its origins in the mid-90s, with astronomer Alan Dressler’s recommendation to NASA in the use of infrared imaging to better capture images in outer space.
Construction on the James Webb began in 2004, with initial testing taking place in 2017 for the function and viability of the key components. The telescope itself was launched on December 25, 2021, marking the end of a 17-year development cycle.
The infrared imaging used in the James Webb Telescope allows astronomers to capture far clearer images than other methods. It also bypasses things like clouds of gas or dust which might otherwise hamper the image quality. As such, the image quality of the James Webb is lightyears ahead of the Hubble. Now, stunning images of outer space objects were captured by the Hubble. Those same objects photographed by the James Webb Telescope are just leaps ahead.
7. The Massive Leap in Technology
Now, it’s no secret that James Webb Telescope is significantly more powerful than the Hubble. The technology in use by the James Webb Telescope is such a marvel that it has significantly impacted the way mankind may view the cosmos going forward. To call it a leap forward is a bit of an understatement. It could very well change the fundamental understanding of outer space. In particular, imaging technology is already being used by eye surgeons. This is done at a much smaller scale, as you might imagine, but still speaks highly of the tech driving the imaging.
This also applies to the deployable technology in use by NASA. Every single component of the James Webb is such a generational leap that it might impact future missions with NASA. The solar shield, in particular, is roughly the size of a tennis court but was easily folded for future usage before the launch.
6. The Enormous Aperture
Much like a commercially available camera, the aperture of the James Webb Telescope is crucial to how it captures images. Compared to the previous Hubble’s 2.4-meter aperture, the James Webb Telescope has an aperture over double the size. At 6.5 meters across, the aperture of the JWST is one of the largest ever fielded.
It makes for especially clear images with stunning clarity. This allows scientists to grab more detailed images as well as look further into the observable universe.
5. The Range of Imaging
Celestial bodies are so unfathomably ancient that viewing the stars is like viewing a great history. With the previous mission of the Hubble, scientists could see relatively old objects in the universe. It is relative in the sense that it is hard to measure against the limited lifespan of a person. Especially compared to the sheer untold eons of space. The James Webb Space Telescope seeks to go even further back when looking at space objects. One of NASA’s missions is to be able to observe objects far older than what even the Hubble was capable of capturing. In a sense, the previous understanding of observable objects was akin to viewing a young adult. The James Webb can hopefully capture images more akin to looking at a space object’s baby photos.
4. Its Success Against All Odds
There are numerous factors that worked against the JWST. Chief among these concerns is the variable nature of fabric in space. Now, a space telescope has to be considerably lighter than a ground-based telescope, by design at least. This is due to needing to be light enough to actually be a payload for a rocket to carry into outer space.
The solar shield, one of the key components of the James Webb Space Telescope, has to be light. As such, the shield itself is made of lightweight fabric. Now, on earth, it is a simple matter of replacing the fabric if some sort of snag or tear occurs. In the vacuum of space, the JWST isn’t afforded these luxuries. The successful deployment of the solar shield for the James Webb Space Telescope is nothing short of an engineering masterstroke. If the shield had hit a snag when deployed, then 17 years of funding and development would’ve been rendered to junk.
3. The Deep Field
The very first image obtained from the James Webb Space Telescope is the Deep Field. This image, which looks more like an abstract piece of art than a photograph, is something wholly unique. Thanks to the superior image quality of the JWST, scientists were able to capture some of the oldest objects in the known universe to be captured. These pinpricks of light are galaxies older than our very own solar system. Some of these galaxies have since vanished from existence, merged with others, or been absorbed into the cosmos.
It is a testament to the engineering marvel that is the JWST that such an image was captured as the very first ever taken. The Deep Web is like peering into a time machine, viewing objects whose light ventured into the cosmos billions of years ago. With the JWST, it is possible to see these faint glimmers of the past and bring them to humanity’s present.
2. Its Orbit
The Hubble Space Telescope was directly in the Earth’s orbit, and as such repairs and routine maintenance were simply a matter of mounting a mission. The JWST is much further from home and sits in orbit at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange Point.
The placement of the JWST has a few advantages. For one, being further away from home allows it to bypass the reflective radiation present on the Earth’s surface. This is unavoidable just due to the very nature of the Sun and Earth. Being further out makes it harder to maintain, so if anything goes awry the JWST is essentially doomed. That aside, being further out also enables it to take far clearer images without being concerned about heat or other factors. The gravity well present between the Sun and Earth also helps to keep it in place, without the need to reposition it.
1. The Mirror
Last, but certainly not least is the mirror which helps to power the James Webb Telescope. This is no simple mirror and has been purposely engineered to deliver high-quality images. Of course, having the massive 21-foot primary mirror jutting out of the rocket wasn’t a possibility. The engineers at NASA had to devise a way to make the mirror portable while also making sure it was large enough to power the telescope’s imaging. The mirror bears a honeycomb design, with multiple panels. Once deployed the mirror unfolds and assembles itself. This required some highly intensive engineering, as each section of the mirror has to be in perfect alignment to function.
The JWST’s mirror successfully deployed just a few weeks after its launch and positioning. There were no teething problems to speak of, as even the alignment being off just a bit would’ve rendered the whole project nonviable.