The next big leap into an unseen universe

A powerful, new space telescope due for a December launch will peer much farther than Hubble has. Prepare to be wowed.

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Pat Izzo
A full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope, built by the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, stands at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The space-based Hubble Space Telescope has looked farther into the cosmos than anything before it and has made great discoveries. Now it is about to be eclipsed by a telescope that will look even farther out – much farther. The long-awaited, $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for launch Dec. 18. In a series of hold-your-breath steps, it must travel to a stable position where Earth and the sun hold equal gravitational pull on it – about four times farther away from Earth than the moon. Then it must gingerly unfold its giant reflective mirror, much larger than Hubble’s and 100 times more powerful.

After it is fully operational next year, “the amazing science that will be shared [from the JWST] with the global community will be audacious and profound,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA.

Gazing deeper into space will mean peering farther into the past, observing galaxies that existed early in the formation of the universe. The result could be a revolutionary new understanding of how the universe evolved over the last 13.8 billion years.

“It will simply open gigantic new windows,” says Günther Hasinger, director of science at the European Space Agency. The ESA and the Canadian Space Agency are partnering with NASA on the JWST project.

In another landmark step for space exploration, a new report that is issued only once every 10 years lays out ambitious plans for using astronomy – both space-based and ground-based telescopes – to try for quantum leaps in understanding the universe. The so-called decadal survey, the result of three years of research, and based on hundreds of scientific papers and proposals, will go far toward setting the agenda for U.S. astronomy long into the future.

“The coming decades will set humanity down a path to determine whether we are alone,” the report concludes. “Life on Earth may be the result of a common process, or it may require such an unusual set of circumstances that we are the only living beings within our part of the galaxy, or even in the universe. Either answer is profound.”

More than four centuries ago, pioneering astronomers such as Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei used primitive telescopes to uncover thought-expanding new views of the moon’s surface, and reveal other nearby celestial objects, such as Jupiter’s moons, that were invisible to the naked eye. Now their high-tech successor, the JWST, will look out from space itself, into the deepest reaches of the universe. Once again humans are on the cusp of expanding their ability to view and comprehend what has so far surrounded them unseen.

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