In 2018, NASA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope, but the James Webb is no ordinary telescope. The James Webb is set to revolutionize astronomy in a way that will eclipse even the magnificent achievements of the Hubble Space Telescope.
To understand how extraordinary the James Webb is, you have to appreciate the extremes that have gone into this marvel of scientific innovation. The James Webb will orbit almost a million miles from Earth at LaGrange point 2 some 940,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. That’s roughly four times the distance from Earth to the Moon. In essence, the Earth-Moon system will drag the James Webb along with it as we orbit the Sun.
For the instruments on the James Webb to function properly they have to operate at 40 Kelvin or -233C which equates to -375F . The telescope has a five-layered sunshade designed to keep the operating instruments at temperatures below the freezing point of oxygen.
The James Webb will be able to see back further than Hubble, back to the end of the celestial “dark age.” The JWST will see the first moment the expanding gas from the Big Bang began forming stars and galaxies.
The James Webb is going to revolutionize a field we thought was already revolutionized by the Hubble.
[The James Webb Space Telescope] has, in many ways, 100 times the capabilities that the Hubble Space Telescope does. We’re actually going to be able to see the first stars forming, the first galaxies forming after the Big Bang. We’re also going to be able to — we think — directly image planets orbiting other stars — Michael Shara, Curator in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History
NASA has a secret, one it has hinted at indirectly, one that it has down-played, but a secret it is quietly hoping will come true.
It’s no secret NASA is looking for life, but NASA is being coy about the role of the James Webb will play in the search for life elsewhere in our universe.
Look at the goals for the mission:
- To detect the first light emerging from the Big Bang
- To understand the formation of galaxies
- To observe the birth of stars and planets
- To image planetary systems and the origins of life
Technically, the last goal is to look for “chemical precursors for life,” but that’s a rather modest way of not getting too overly excited about just what the James Webb could possibly see. As with any scientific research, there is going to be considerable effort put in to confirming any discoveries, but it is quite likely the James Webb will be able to detect the signatures of life in the atmosphere of distant planets. Validating such a finding will be the subject of innumerable research papers, I’m sure.
Here’s what Venus, Earth and Mars would look like to an instrument similar to the James Webb peering at our solar system from a distance.
Finding markers for an abundance of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water vapor, as an example, would be a smoking gun for life similar to what we have here on Earth. Oxygen is so highly reactive it tends to get locked up in chemical sinks like rust in the soil, etc. On Earth, it took hundreds of millions of years for oxygen to be liberated by photosynthesis, and since then Earth has enjoyed recycling oxygen over and over again in the oxygen cycle. If we see a similar stable arrangement on a planet around another star, we’ll have an extremely strong candidate for life.
The James Webb Space Telescope is our best chance of finding life around distant stars.
These are exciting times.