The long awaited next great observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is on now view for tourists at the “visitor’s gallery” of Goddard Space Flight Center. This telescope has been in the making for 20 years, and just now nearing completion.
The 18 rare gold-covered beryllium mirrors are joined together like a puzzle. In space these shiny mirrors will appear to sit on five pink-colored sun shields each the size of a tennis court which will be unfurled to cool the telescope from the Sun.
Both the mirrors and the sun shields are too big fit intact inside the rocket that will launch it into space. Instead, the JWST mirrors will fold into 3 different pieces and the sun shields will fold up like the battened sails of a grand tall ship. The difference is that there will be no crew aboard this ship to assist with unfolding the mirror structure or hoisting the sails.
In the heart of the telescope are four primary instruments which will be used to take images and spectra of astronomical objects and send the images back to Earth. All told, the satellite will be sent to a distance of one million miles away, or four times further away than the Moon.
Unlike Hubble, the JWST will be too far away to be maintained. This one-of-a-kind JWST will have to survive the launch in a Ariane V rocket, to manage the installment into its final orbital position, to follow programmed instructions for how to turn itself on, assemble itself, and perform initial calibrations to be sent back home.
Observers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD, will then turn to astronomers from around the world to apply for time to use this great pyramid of telescopes to achieve goals such as to image planets orbiting other solar systems and measure their atmospheric compositions. It will also detect galaxies that are 13 billion light years away. This is important because the universe is only 13.7 billion years old. In October, 2018 we will have one and only one chance to get it right. That is truly one of the epic adventures of our generation.