For 26 years, the NASA scientists behind the James Webb Space Telescope asked for three things: patience, time, and money. In 1996, a group of astronomers suggested a space telescope. It would be able to see more than 13 billion light-years away, they said. It would be ready to launch by 2007. And it would cost $500 million. That’s cheap for a space telescope.
It didn’t work out that way. The telescope didn’t launch until December 25, 2021. And the $500 million cost? That ballooned to $10 billion. But one promise stayed the same: Images from the new telescope would be spectacular.
This past summer, that promise was kept. NASA unveiled new images captured by Webb. NASA did so at the Goddard Space Flight Center. That’s in Greenbelt, Maryland. One image showed an exoplanet. (An exoplanet is a planet that circles a star other than our sun.) Webb also captured a picture of SMACS 0723. That’s a swarm of thousands of galaxies. This picture was revealed at the White House on July 11. President Joe Biden and Bill Nelson, of NASA, presented it. “These images are going to remind the world that America can do big things,” Biden said. “There’s nothing beyond our capacity.”
In addition to the exoplanet, named WASP-96 b, and SMACS 0723, the photos show three other objects. They are the Carina Nebula, the Southern Ring Nebula, and Stephan’s Quintet. “Every light we see here is an individual star, not unlike our sun,” scientist Amber Straughn said. She was showing off the Carina image. “And many of these likely also have planets.”
WASP-96 b might cause the most excitement. Exoplanets used to be hard to see. Webb’s image shows the atmosphere of WASP-96 b to be rich in water. That’s a key ingredient for life.
A New Kind of Telescope
The farther into space a telescope can peer, the further back in time it’s looking. Light from distant objects takes many years to reach us. What we see of a galaxy 13 billion light-years away is not how it looks today. It’s how it looked 13 billion years ago, when the universe was new.
Webb can see about 200 million light-years deeper into space than the Hubble Space Telescope can. (Hubble launched in 1990, and is still active.) That might not seem like much. But a lot happened during those 200 million years. “The difference between what Hubble and Webb [see] is not like comparing someone who’s 70 years old to somebody who’s 71,” Scott Friedman says. He’s an astronomer on the Webb team. “It’s like comparing a baby who’s [a] day old to a baby who’s [a] year old. That’s a huge difference.”
Nelson is excited about what else Webb will reveal. Talking about the telescope, he used a quote associated with scientist Carl Sagan: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
The James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful telescope ever launched. Some of that power comes from its giant mirror. Webb’s primary mirror is more than 21 feet wide. It’s made up of 18 smaller mirrors. They’re arranged in a honeycomb pattern. Webb’s mission will last 20 to 25 years. Its massive mirror will allow us to see farther into space than ever before. At right, the primary mirror is on display at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in November 2016.