The JWST's Mind-Blowing Science Potential
The James Webb Telescope (JWST) will be the Hubble Space Telescope's successor -- a joint collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
The JWST is far more sensitive and will operate at higher resolutions than its predecessor. The key difference between the two telescopes is that while the Hubble operates with optical and ultra-violent wavelengths, the JWST is designed to detect red-optical light, mid-infrared light, and near-infrared light.
Combined with a larger mirror and higher resolutions, the JWST will be able to see far fainter objects than Hubble.
The JWST is unique in that it won't be found orbiting the Earth like the Hubble; instead it will orbit an island of gravitational calm, some 930,000 miles away at the second Lagrange (L2) point. The L2 point is located away from the sun, always in the Earth's shadow.
It's impossible to say just what the JWST will surprise astronomers with. Hubble discovered the source of gamma ray bursts, for example, something that wasn’t initially part of the project's plans.
Unfortunately, the JWST is currently on the budget-saving chopping block pending Congressional approval of NASA cuts later this year. Although a Senate subcommittee may have averted JWST cancellation, there's no guarantee that the planned 2018 launch will happen.
Assuming disaster is averted, like its predecessor, the JWST will discover things about our Universe that it wasn't initially designed for. But as discussed in this slide show, with the help of Jason Kalirai, Deputy Scientist for the JWST, Discovery News will just about scratch the tip of the iceberg of the JWST's potential.
Also see "Hubble's Top 5 Discoveries" for a run-down on how the JWST might build on its predecessor's awe-inspiring achievements.
The End of the Dark Ages: First Light and Reionization
Immediately after the Big Bang, there wasn't a star or galaxy in sight until some 400 million years later. This period of darkness, the Universe's very own "Dark Age," is a mystery all on its own.
The goal is to figure out what happened during this virtual blank-slate period and track the formation of the very first stars and galaxies.
Take a second to imagine our sun and how huge it is -- the theory goes that the very first stars (called "first generation" stars) were 30 to 300 times more massive. It's almost like trying to compare an anthill to Mount Everest.
One JWST goal is to figure out which galaxies were the first to form. Only the JWST's ultra-deep near-infrared surveys have the capability to do this.
The Assembly of Galaxies
Based on the previous slide's goal, NASA wants to figure out just how the first galaxies formed.
Building on previous NASA findings, a supermassive black hole lies at the center of most galaxies, including our own. Therein lies something interesting to think about: Is there a correlation between supermassive black holes at the center of most galaxies and life? Who knows?
Galaxies are believed to form when dark matter merges and forms clumps. It's said that many billions of years from now (can we get some cryogenic sleep to see it occur?) our own Milky Way galaxy will collide with the Andromeda galaxy. Is anyone else thinking of a super galaxy with some aliens joining us?
The Birth of Stars and Protoplanetary Systems
Only in this last 100 years have scientists figured out that stars are not only continuously forming, but that they are powered by nuclear fusion.
An infinite number of questions still remain, such as how clouds of gas and dust collapse to form stars, and as a by-product, how exactly black holes form.
In order to discover how planetary systems form and evolve (and scientists have been surprised at finding them) only the JWST's super imaging and spectroscopy abilities can get the job done.
Planets and Origins of Life
This is perhaps the most exciting element of the JWST’s known potential. NASA has discovered a multitude of worlds orbiting other stars in our galaxy (called "exoplanets"). The goal here is to figure out the building blocks of these exoplanets.
Of course, also under this goal is, through analyzing these building blocks is to find water on other planets. Is that not one of the key goals of humanity, to find life on other planets and discover once and for all whether or not the human race is something completely unique in the Universe or if there are other entities out there.
Vulcans? It’s still nice to dream, right? I want my warp drive and transporter technology. Don’t you?
Astronomers, Graduate Students, and Post-Doctoral Students
According to Jason Kalirai, Deputy Scientist for the JWST, Hubble alone supports thousands of astronomers.
Furthermore, you not only have the raw investment that comes from working directly with the telescope and those it employs, but it is also important to realize that the data obtained is matched with research funding.
The PhDs who receive grants from the Hubble will carry over to the JWST. The workforce-side of the program and all the outliers of students and the public at large who express interest in space telescope are hard to ignore. The Hubble’s website nets some 10 million hits per month alone. That is just a staggering number.