The limit of what Hubble can see

“Whereas Hubble struggles to get to wavelengths as long as one micron, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will get all the way down to about 30 microns with better sensitivity than anything else that’s come before, with better resolution and some six times the light-gathering power of Hubble!”

You might think that, when it comes to finding the most distant objects in the Universe, all we need is a good telescope, to leave the shutter open, and wait. As we accumulate more and more photons, we’re bound to find the most distant, faint objects out there. Sure, Hubble just broke its own cosmic distance record, but it’s certainly not the most distant. Thinking so misses an important fact: the Universe is expanding! And with that expansion, the wavelength of the light we can see gets redshifted. Ultraviolet light winds up in the infrared, infrared light winds up in the microwave, and the most distant galaxies that are out there are invisible, even to Hubble. Here are Hubble’s limits, and how the James Webb Space Telescope will overcome them.

These mirrors will allow us to observe the birth of the Universe. Yes, really.

In 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope will become one of the greatest tools in humanity’s quest to understand the cosmos. Now, after eight years, the technology comprising the heart and soul of the telescope — an ultra-sophisticated beryllium mirror system — is complete.

Up top, 11 of JWST’s 18 gigantic mirror segments, engineered and assembled by Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado, are shown packed up and ready to ship to NASA. Here’s why that is very, very exciting news.

Yes, NASA just landed an absurdly awesome rover on the surface of Mars; and yes, the Agency did just announce plans for yet another mission to the Red Planet — but the completion of JWST’s primary mirror system represents a major milestone for a much bigger (and much more expensive) astronomical endeavor.

It is estimated that JWST will wind up costing roughly 9 billion dollars by the time NASA’s ready to hoist it into space. That’s over three times the estimated cost of the Curiosity project; but with that price tag comes formidable scientific potential. Not to detract from NASA’s accomplishments on Mars in any way, but JWST is designed to tell us about the earliest days of the Universe. When you’re dealing with cosmological questions on a scale as big as, well, the cosmos, you’re bound to come up with some monumental discoveries.

How monumental are we talking? Look at it this way: in many ways, JWST is designed to help answer questions about the Universe that we haven’t even thought of yet — something its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, has been remarkably successful at. Astronomers and astrophysicists are confident that the vastly superior capabilities of JWST will translate to discoveries of a similar caliber.

That confidence is captured perfectly in this description of JWST by astrophysicist Michael Shara, curator in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History (click here for our full interview with Shara):

[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.

There isn’t a field in all of astrophysics that will not benefit tremendously. Just as Hubble was… not just a leap, but an enormous leap forward for all of astrophysics, including the discovery of Dark Energy (70% of… the energy of the Universe was unknown before Hubble), I find it almost impossible to believe that we won’t make the same kinds of discoveries with the James Webb Telescope.

Once [we] started seeing things with Hubble that [we’d] never seen before, [we] pushed it harder and harder to do new things. The same will happen with the James Webb Space Telescope. We will discover new things that we have no way of knowing about today, no way of guessing [because] our intuition isn’t able to take us there. And those will be the great discoveries that actually show up in the coming 20 years, in the coming 30 years. It is really, in many ways, the golden age of astronomy — it’s the very best time ever to be an astronomer.

To the uninformed observer, this view of JWST’s 18 mirror segments, all packed up and ready for transport, is little more than some shiny eye-candy. But to those familiar with the telescope and its awesome scientific potential, it represents the completion of one of the most challenging stages on the path to JWST’s full realization.


It’s Hanko de Mayo!

It’s Hanko de Mayo! We all know Hank loves the James Webb Space Telescope, so hopefully he’ll like our gift. In addition to his gift, nerdfighteria is celebrating Hank’s birthday by letting our elected officials know that Increasing Awesome through scientific exploration is important to us. You’ll find the email I wrote my congressperson and senators below. You can copy it, amend it, or write your own. Here’s how:


Find your congressional representative here:


And your senators here:


Click through to their contact pages to email them.


I do not know how to email your representatives, but I do know that it is possible in every democratic country, and since the James Webb Space Telescope is a collaboration among many nations, it’s likely that your government is involved. So let them know how much space exploration and science funding matter to you!

Here’s my letter:

Dear Congressman Carson,

My name is John Green. I’m a voter in your district, and I’m contacting you to ask that you work to increase federal government support for NASA and other scientific initiatives. NASA projects like the James Webb Space Telescope offer us the opportunity to understand the very beginning of our universe. For centuries, government-backed scientific programs have improved the lives of every person on the planet, and they are a gift to every person who will live after us. It’s vital that the United States lead the world in increasing awesome through scientific exploration and discovery. So please support NASA and projects like the James Webb Space Telescope.

It’s a big universe. And it is our privilege and responsibility as human beings to work to understand and appreciate it.

Best wishes,

John Green

HUGE thanks to everyone at NASA and Northrop Grumman who made Hank’s present possible, especially Ron Birk, Charlie Atkinson, and Rolf Danner. And thanks to Michael Gardner at ecogeek for facilitating the whole process. Happy Hanko de Mayo!


Biomimicry at its finest.

For the uninitiated, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) - due to launch in 2018 - is a 6.5 meter telescope which will peer 13.5 billion years into the early universe, revealing the meticulous formation and cosmic evolution of stars and galaxies. JWST’s infrared capability will permit insight into the birth of planetary and stellar systems within the densely opaque interstellar dust clouds which visible-light observatories - such as the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) - cannot provide.

The JWST will aid in the search for life in the universe by analyzing the atmospheres of extrasolar planets or, planetary bodies orbiting stars outside our solar system. Understanding the atmospheric chemical composition of other atmospheres will guide our roughly 13.8-14.5 billion year quest to find the building blocks of life in the universe.

An international collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), European Space Agency (ESA), and Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the JWST will be managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), Northrop Grumman, and after launch, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which also currently operates the Hubble Space Telescope as a part of John Hopkins University.

The scientific instrumentation and technological implementation integrated into JWST is easily accessible through NASA’s “Explore James Webb Space Telescope” page, an interactive headquarters with the status of JWST’s development, photos/animation/videos, recent news publications, and more.

The “James Webb” in James Webb Space Telescope serves as a respectful ode to NASA’s former second administrator - James E. Webb - an influential proponent for space science throughout and beyond the Apollo program. When chosen to be administrator for NASA, Webb is quoted as saying, “I’m not going to run a program that’s just a one-shot program. If you want me to be the administrator, it’s going to be a balanced program that does the job for the country….”

From NASA’s “Explore JWST” page (where you can learn much more) regarding James E. Webb’s importance to the project:

As NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said when he announced the new name for the next generation space telescope, It is fitting that Hubble’s successor be named in honor of James Webb. Thanks to his efforts, we got our first glimpses at the dramatic landscape of outer space. He took our nation on its first voyages of exploration, turning our imagination into reality. Indeed, he laid the foundations at NASA for one of the most successful periods of astronomical discovery. As a result, we’re rewriting the textbooks today with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope , the Chandra X-ray Observatory , and the James Webb Telescope.

So what’s with the obsessive hexagonal construction inside honeybees’ hives? And why is this honeycomb structure of relative importance to the design of the James Webb Space Telescope and its functionality? NPR Science Correspondent Robert Krulwich explains via the NPR blogpost “What Is It About Bees And Hexagons?”

JWST is one of the most ambitious projects since the deployment and servicing missions of the Hubble Space Telescope. The difference between the two, however, is the James Webb Space Telescope will remain in stable orbit around the sun at Lagrange Point “L2”, which will not permit a spacecraft rendezvous (right now) barring any problems with the hardware. Just as the Apollo 13 mission serves to remind, “failure is not an option.

While at the 30th Space Symposium, I had the privilege of enjoying a conference session with those responsible for James Webb’s creation, implementation, and ultimately, it’s success and discovery: Blake Bullock, Director, Civil Air and Space, Business & Advanced Systems Development - Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems; Dave Gallagher, Director for Astronomy, Physics and Space Technology - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory; John M. Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate - NASA; Matt Mountain, Director, Space Telescope Science Institute; John C. Mather, Senior Project Scientist, James Webb Space Telescope - NASA; and Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Science and Physics - Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was by far one of the most inspiring discussions regarding the future I’ve experienced thus far.

I encourage everyone to watch National Geographic’s informative and 4-minute brief video “Building the Largest Space Telescope Ever for a wonderful introduction to this monumental human effort.

Recommended: my archive specific to JWST.

Can Pollution Be The Key To Detecting Alien Life?

As astronomers continue their visual exploration of the universe, they also teach us different concepts and methods of understanding what we’re seeing. Using the human race and our Earth as the primary example, it turns out we’re actually quite a loud species. Wireless signals being transmitted all around the world are now the norm which would otherwise be considered alien to a person from a couple hundred years ago. The same can be said for the footprint the human race is creating on this planet, our pollution.

“We consider industrial pollution as a sign of intelligent life, but perhaps civilizations more advanced than us, with their own SETI programs, will consider pollution as a sign of unintelligent life since it’s not smart to contaminate your own air,” says Harvard student and lead author Henry Lin.

A group of theorists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics believe that since we already have a limited ability to detect the make-up of an exoplanet’s atmosphere, we could possibly use that ability to search for planets that give off signatures that would indicate the presence of atmospheric contaminants, more specifically CFCs. Though this would be a tough feat to accomplish, the Harvard group believes that the James Webb Space Telescope would be the proper piece of equipment for the job. The group believes that it could be possible that an advanced civilization would intentionally pollute a planet that might otherwise be too cold to support life even if it contained the right elements, among many other possibilities. This method could also allow astronomers to detect the remains of a civilization that died out long ago. There are certain pollutants that can last up to 50,000 years and others that last only a decade. The presence of long term pollutants and absence of short term pollutants on a planet can indicate a civilization once inhabited it.

“In that case, we could speculate that the aliens wised up and cleaned up their act. Or in a darker scenario, it would serve as a warning sign of the dangers of not being good stewards of our own planet,” says the study’s co-author, Avi Loeb.

IMAGE CREDIT: Christine Pulliam (CfA, artist rendition of an Earth-like planet with widespread pollution)

Simulating the Universe from the Beginning of Time

Things were different in the early eons of the universe. The cosmos experienced rapid inflation; electrons and protons floated free from each other; the universe transitioned from complete darkness to light; and enormous stars formed and exploded to start a cascade of events leading to our present-day universe.

Milos Milosavljevic, Associate Professor of Astronomy at the University of Texas, and colleagues recently reported the results of several massive numerical simulations charting the forces of the universe in its first hundreds of millions of years using some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, including the National Science Foundation-supported Stampede, Lonestar and Ranger systems at the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

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The world of astronomy is about to get a giant boost.

Five enormous new telescopes are currently in the works and when their construction is complete, as Sarah Zhang of Gizmodo puts it, “we will have the clearest and most detailed views of outer space ever.”

The telescopes and their respective sizes are:

1. Thirty Meter Telescope, Hawaii - 30 meters (98.43 feet)
2. European Extremely Large Telescope, Chile - 39 meters (128 feet)
3. James Webb Space Telescope - 6.5 meters (21.33 feet)
4. Giant Magellan Telescope, Chile - 25 meters (82.02 feet)
5. Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, Chile - 8.4 meters (27.56 feet; built for speed)

Not only will NASA’s own JWST (which is about 2.7 times larger than the diameter of Hubble, or about 6 times larger in area) revolutionize astronomy, but NASA often has contracts and agreements with other telescopes around the world, allowing space scientists to maximize time spent studying the stars and therefore constantly making new and exciting discoveries.

However, getting these giant projects finished isn’t easy. The James Webb Space Telescope almost didn’t make it until a strong campaign led by dedicated space advocates saved it. Check out the Save JWST petition here: http://www.savejwst.com/.

And still, the James Webb Space Telescope was supposed to launch this year, but after exceeding its initial budget, NASA pushed the project back until 2018. Astronomers and space enthusiasts alike are eagerly awaiting its data.

Want projects like these to become a reality without delays and budget woes?

Write Congress now telling them that you support doubling NASA’s funding: http://penny4nasa.org/take-action

Read more: http://gizmodo.com/the-5-massive-new-telescopes-that-will-change-astronomy-1610529758



How will the giant Webb telescope fit inside its rocket

Webb’s mirrors and sunshield will be folded to fit inside the Ariane 5 rocket’s payload fairing, which will take it to its new home 932,000 miles from Earth, more than three times the distance of the Moon from Earth. In comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope is in near-Earth orbit, approximately 350 miles above the ground.

The Webb telescope will be launched from the Arianespace’s ELA-3 launch complex near Kourou, French Guiana, located in South America. Being near Earth’s equator, this launch site will take advantage of the rotation of the Earth, imparting an extra boost to the rocket, helping to send it into orbit and on to its ultimate destination.

Test James Webb Space Telescope Mirror and Backplane

The James Webb Space Telescope’s beautiful, golden test (or Engineering Design Unit) mirror is lowered onto a test section of backplane by a robot arm. This series of tests was recently done in NASA Goddard’s cleanroom to prepare for when the flight mirrors will be mated to the flight backplane structure.

Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn


Reblogging because the James Webb Space Telescope is important. More people know Justin Bieber’s eye color than they do about the greatest, most humbling & monumental achievements of human history, which hasn’t even been demonstrated nor left Earth.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor to the Hubble’s throne. In order to pick up extremely faint infra-red signals from extremely distant stars and galaxies, the JWST has to be extremely cold. Any noise from the IR radiation of the Sun or Earth would make it impossible to see as far into the past as scientists want to. 

Thus, the JWST has to be a million miles from the earth, protected by a six-layer heat shield as big as a tennis court. This will allow the Webb Telescope to peer into the deepest reaches of space, through clouds of dust into stellar nurseries and back in time 13.4 billion years. 

Not only will we get the most detailed views of our universe ever, but the JWST will provide insights into how solar systems, galaxies, stars and even the Universe were formed.

Last week, the University of Hawaii at Hilo was granted land use atop Mauna Kea for the 1.3 billion dollar “Thirty Meter Telescope.” This will be one of the world’s largest telescopes.

This addition to the Mauna Kea observatories will bring as many as 140 full-time jobs, in addition to construction jobs.

TMT will be a fundamental tool for investigating a very wide range of topics, including exploration of the “dark ages” when the first sources of light in the universe formed. Working hand-in-hand with the James Webb Space Telescope, the TMT’s spectrometers will provide insight into the early production and dispersal of the chemical elements.

There is much more that we can expect from this amazing telescope, from black hole investigation to exploring planet-formation processes. It’s very likely that the scientific impact of TMT will reach beyond what we are able to envision today.

If enabling discovery is something that you support, please take the time to let your district representatives understand how important scientific investment is to you:


NASA’s Next Great Space Telescope Passes Major Milestone

The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next flagship space observatory, has passed a major milestone on its road to its planned 2018 launch: the delivery of the last three mirrors that will make up its complicated infrared-seeking innards.

The mirror delivery for the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope lays a critical brick in the observatory’s path to becoming the most powerful space telescope ever built. When complete, the telescope is expected to have seven times the light-collecting power of its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, and should provide answers to questions about the early universe and the chances of life on other planets.

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NASA’s troubled US$8-billion Hubble successor is back on track

After setbacks, delays and cost overruns that almost led to its cancellation, the telescope should be able to meet its 2018 launch date.

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Why You Should Be Excited About the James Webb Space Telescope

This telescope will be more sensitive, by a factor of about 100, than all the other telescopes that came before it. It could help us see the first stars forming in the universe. It could allow us to image planets orbiting alien stars. It will open up a world (a universe) of possibilities.
Learn more at: