The idea of de-orbiting the Hubble telescope and sending it hurdling towards the Pacific Ocean is particularly dismaying. But NASA is considering alternative options and aside the first, least desirable one, we may also decide on elevating Hubble’s orbit for a longer preservation time.
According to NASA estimates, the legendary space telescope will continue to send back important data and images for the following five years. And when this five-year window has closed, another instrument, just as valuable, will be ready for launch. The James Webb Space Telescope is designed to gaze into the depths of space better and farther than any other instrument has done before.
When attempting to reach further than ever before, some unconventional materials are bound to be a necessity, and for the construction of Hubble’s successor, a massive mirror and a golf ball of gold were two essential items. The 25-square-meter mirror and the 1.7-ounce ball of gold will optimize the telescope for infra-red sensing.
Of course, filling Hubble’s shoes is by no means an easy task. With countless spectacular images and unparalleled data streams, scientists were able to write thousands of scientific papers in their efforts of better understanding the universe we live in.
The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch in October, three years from now, aboard an Ariane 5 rocket.
“Hubble rewrote the text books and we’re planning to rewrite the text books again,” Lynn Chandler, NASA spokesperson said during an interview with CNN.
Engineers have been hard at work preparing for the launch of the telescope. They have recently succeeded in manually deploying a secondary mirror support structure at the Johnson Space Center in Huston. Such a structure would have to be tested in weightless environments, so NASA used a giant space simulation chamber (dubbed Chamber A).
While in space, the mirror support structure would be deployed by electric motors. Yet for the purposes of this deployment, the SMSS (secondary mirror support structure) overcame the force of gravity by means of hand cranks and mechanical ground support equipment.
NASA officials are confident that the James Web Telescope will be able to contribute as much ground-breaking information as its predecessor did. But it is also expected to expand on Hubble’s longstanding legacy.
Astronomers expect the JWT to gather data about the very first galaxies to ever form in our universe. Cutting-edge technology allows the James Web Telescope to capture the universe in infrared spectrum, so that dust is no longer an impediment when searching for star formations.
Apart from studying star formations, Hubble’s successor is also capable of carefully studying exoplanet atmospheres. Such capabilities are essential when attempting to identify planets resembling Earth. The Webb telescope employs sensitive instruments which collect data about the chemicals contained in alien planets’ atmospheres.
Moreover, JWST’s instrumentation will also allow Hubble’s successor to capture objects which are 10-100 times fainter than those currently observable by Hubble.
There is still a lot of planning to be done. Because of the sheer size of the Webb telescope, NASA must still come up with an efficient way of launching it. While Hubble was comparable in size to a school bus, the Webb telescope resembles a tennis court.
Since there aren’t rockets powerful enough to carry such a weight, “[The James Webb Telescope] has to be folded up like a flower and then unfurled like a transformer,” Lynn Chandler said.
A particularly exciting moment for astronomers is the prospect of both telescopes operating simultaneously from space. Because Hubble and JWST complement each other when it comes to their views of the light spectrum, scientists may have the unique opportunity of capturing the same object in different wavelengths.
Such technology implies massive costs. While the Hubble Space Telescope cost approximately $1.5 billion at its launch (with operating costs for the last quarter-century amounting to $10 million), the JWST will cost $8.5 billion. It represents the joint efforts of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency as well as other 14 countries.