WASHINGTON: NASA has unveiled the massive replacement for the ageing Hubble Space Telescope. To start work in 2013, it will allow astronomers to observe the formation of the first galaxies at the dawning of the universe.
The U.S. Space Agency NASA displayed a full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in Washington D.C. yesterday. Scientists hope to use it to peer back to the first stars after the Big Bang and also the formation of solar systems capable of hosting life.
The JWST, a joint project of the U.S., European and Canadian space agencies, will be three times bigger than Hubble, with a hexagonal mirror 6.5-metres in diameter and five-layer sunshield the size of a tennis court
The probe will include 10 new technologies, including an infrared camera and a spectrometer kept at an extremely low temperature for optimum performance. The telescope is expected to have a 10-year lifespan.
Launched 17 years ago, Hubble revolutionized astronomy by peering deep into the universe, beaming back dazzling images free of the distortions from Earth’s atmosphere. Orbiting 575 km above the planet, Hubble has enabled scientists to better measure the age and origins of the universe, observe distant supernovas, and identify and study bodies in and outside the solar system.
While Hubble was capable of peering back to one billion years after the Big Bang, the new telescope, with mirrors that will capture six times more light than its predecessor, will look even further into the origins of the universe.
“Clearly we need a much bigger telescope to go back much further in time to see the very birth of the universe,” said Edward Weiler, director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland.
Hubble, and the space telescopes Chandra and Spitzer, have all shown that the universe is hiding many mysteries, but they are unable to solve them, said Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “We cannot penetrate the darkness of the time when the first galaxies were born.”
The current telescopes are also unable to provide answers about black holes and the enigmatic dark matter, he said. With its more powerful mirrors, the JWST “for the first time will send images from that dark age – high resolution pictures,” he said.
The 4.5 billion dollar telescope will be folded to fit inside a European Ariane V rocket in 2013 and will unfurl 1.5 million km from Earth.
NASA plans to launch a space shuttle mission next year to upgrade and maintain Hubble in order to keep it operational through 2013. Without a repair mission, the telescope would shut down in 2009 or even earlier, dealing a blow to scientists who have relied on Hubble’s images to better understand the universe.