Webb Space Telescope: How is it different from Hubble?

The Webb Space Telescope could launch as early as Christmas Day. It’s seen as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. But they’re very different.

NASA/Bill Ingalls/Handout via Reuters
An Ariane 5 rocket with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope onboard stands on the launch pad at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, Thursday.

After a delay earlier this week, the rocket carrying the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to lift off as early as Saturday, Dec. 25. Just don’t ask astronomers to choose between it and the Hubble Space Telescope already in orbit.

Comparing Hubble and Webb is like asking if you will love your second child as much as your first,” said Susan Mullally, Webb’s deputy project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

But what is the difference?

Hubble has been operating for nearly 32 years, with Webb widely viewed as its successor. But the two are vastly different. Here's a comparison of the two.

Lost in space?

Hubble caught a lift to orbit tucked inside NASA’s space shuttle Discovery in 1990. It quickly ran into trouble: One of the telescope’s solar wings jammed as it was unfurling. Astronauts suited up for an emergency spacewalk, but commands from Earth freed the panel. Within weeks, Hubble’s blurry vision was detected. Spacewalking astronauts fixed it three years later.

Soaring from South America on a European rocket, Webb won't be reachable by astronauts at its destination 1 million miles away. Bigger, 100 times more powerful, and also more intricate than Hubble, Webb will be a goner if its foldout mirror and sunshield snarl.

Looking farther

Webb is expected to behold light from the universe’s first stars and galaxies, beyond Hubble’s range. This light will reveal how the original stars looked 13.7 billion years ago. Hubble has stared as far back as 13.4 billion years, disclosing a clumpy runt of a galaxy that is currently the oldest and farthest object ever observed.

Astronomers are eager to close the 300 million year gap with Webb and draw ever closer in time to the Big Bang, the moment the universe formed 13.8 billion years ago. “It’s like looking at the picture book of my kids and missing the first two years, right? Trying to figure out where they come from,” said NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen.

Infrared vision

Hubble sees what we see – visible light – with a little ultraviolet and infrared thrown in. Webb has infrared vision, allowing it to pierce cosmic clouds of dust. The shorter visible and ultraviolet wavelengths emitted by the first stars and galaxies have been stretched as the universe expands, so Webb will see them in their elongated, heat-emitting infrared form.

That’s why Webb’s detectors need to run at minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit. To stay chilled, Webb carries a parasol the size of a tennis court. Between each of the sunshield’s five layers is a gap so heat can escape out the sides. Multiple layers also better protect against micrometeorite hits.

Bigger is better

To discern the universe's first, faint stars, Webb requires the largest mirror ever launched for astronomy. The mirror spans more than 21 feet, yet is lighter than Hubble’s, which is 8 feet across. That’s because Webb’s mirror is made of beryllium, a strong but lightweight metal. It’s also segmented, allowing it to fold like a drop-leaf table for launch. Each of the 18 hexagonal segments are the size of a coffee table and coated with ultra-thin gold, an ideal reflector of infrared light.

Location matters

Hubble orbits 330 miles overhead. The altitude was dictated by the capabilities of NASA’s space shuttles, which delivered Hubble to orbit and then made five service calls. Webb is bound for more a more distant spot – 1 million milesaway at what's called the second Lagrange point. This is where the gravitational forces of the Earth and sun balance, requiring minimal fuel for a spacecraft to stay put. Webb will constantly face the nightside of Earth as the spacecraft and planet swoop around the sun in unison.

Price tag

Hubble was years late and millions over budget. Webb also is years late with huge cost overruns. NASA’s tab for Hubble from its 1970s development until now: $16 billion, adjusted for inflation. That doesn’t include all the shuttle flights for launch and repairs. Webb’s price tag is an estimated $10 billion; that includes the first five years of operation. The European Space Agency is picking up the launch costs, with a French-built rocket providing Webb’s lift from French Guiana.

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