We Just Identified More Than 200 New (Potential) Planets

The Kepler space telescope is our first mission capable of identifying Earth-size planets around other stars. On Monday, June 19, 2017, scientists from many countries gathered at our Ames Research Center to talk about the latest results from the spacecraft, which include the identification of more than 200 potential new worlds! Here’s what you need to know:

We found 219 new planet candidates.

All of these worlds were found in a patch of sky near the Cygnus constellation in our Milky Way galaxy. Between 2009 and 2013, Kepler searched more than 200,000 stars in the region for orbiting planets. The 219 new planet candidates are part of the more than 4,000 planet candidates and 2,300 confirmed planets Kepler has identified to date.

Ten of these worlds are like our own.

Out of the 219 new planet candidates, 10 are possibly rocky, terrestrial worlds and orbit their star in the habitable zone – the range of distances from a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of a rocky planet.

Small planets come in two sizes.

Kepler has opened up our eyes to the existence of many small worlds. It turns out a lot of these planets are either approximately 1.5 times the size of Earth or just smaller than Neptune. The cool names given to planets of these sizes? Super Earths and mini-Neptunes.

Some of the new planets could be habitable. 

Water is a key ingredient to life as we know it. Many of the new planet candidates are likely to have small rocky cores enveloped by a thick atmosphere of hydrogen and helium, and some are thought to be ocean worlds. That doesn’t necessarily mean the oceans of these planets are full of water, but we can dream, can’t we?

Other Earths are out there.

Kepler’s survey has made it possible for us to measure the number of Earth-size habitable zone planets in our galaxy. Determining how many planets like our own that exist is the big question we’ll explore next.

The hunt for new planets continues.

Kepler continues to search for planets in different regions of space. With the launch of our Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in 2018, we’re going to search for planets nearest the sun and measure the composition of their atmospheres. In the mid-2020s, we have our sights on taking a picture of small planets like Earth with our Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

*All images of planets are artist illustrations.

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James Webb Golden Mirror:  The huge mirrors on the James Webb are made from 18 hexagonal-shaped mirror segments 4.3 feet in diameter.  That makes the entire golden mirror section about 21 ½ feet tall.  Compare that to the Hubble, which has a mirror section of just under 8 feet.  Now we just need to get this big thing in space and get it operational!

Infrared is Beautiful

Why was James Webb Space Telescope designed to observe infrared light? How can its images hope to compare to those taken by the (primarily) visible-light Hubble Space Telescope? The short answer is that Webb will absolutely capture beautiful images of the universe, even if it won’t see exactly what Hubble sees. (Spoiler: It will see a lot of things even better.)

The James Webb Space Telescope, or Webb, is our upcoming infrared space observatory, which will launch in 2019. It will spy the first luminous objects that formed in the universe and shed light on how galaxies evolve, how stars and planetary systems are born, and how life could form on other planets.

What is infrared light? 

This may surprise you, but your remote control uses light waves just beyond the visible spectrum of light—infrared light waves—to change channels on your TV.

Infrared light shows us how hot things are. It can also show us how cold things are. But it all has to do with heat. Since the primary source of infrared radiation is heat or thermal radiation, any object that has a temperature radiates in the infrared. Even objects that we think of as being very cold, such as an ice cube, emit infrared.

There are legitimate scientific reasons for Webb to be an infrared telescope. There are things we want to know more about, and we need an infrared telescope to learn about them. Things like: stars and planets being born inside clouds of dust and gas; the very first stars and galaxies, which are so far away the light they emit has been stretched into the infrared; and the chemical fingerprints of elements and molecules in the atmospheres of exoplanets, some of which are only seen in the infrared.

In a star-forming region of space called the ‘Pillars of Creation,’ this is what we see with visible light:

And this is what we see with infrared light:

Infrared light can pierce through obscuring dust and gas and unveil a more unfamiliar view.

Webb will see some visible light: red and orange. But the truth is that even though Webb sees mostly infrared light, it will still take beautiful images. The beauty and quality of an astronomical image depends on two things: the sharpness of the image and the number of pixels in the camera. On both of these counts, Webb is very similar to, and in many ways better than, Hubble. Webb will take much sharper images than Hubble at infrared wavelengths, and Hubble has comparable resolution at the visible wavelengths that Webb can see.

Webb’s infrared data can be translated by computer into something our eyes can appreciate – in fact, this is what we do with Hubble data. The gorgeous images we see from Hubble don’t pop out of the telescope looking fully formed. To maximize the resolution of the images, Hubble takes multiple exposures through different color filters on its cameras.

The separate exposures, which look black and white, are assembled into a true color picture via image processing. Full color is important to image analysis of celestial objects. It can be used to highlight the glow of various elements in a nebula, or different stellar populations in a galaxy. It can also highlight interesting features of the object that might be overlooked in a black and white exposure, and so the images not only look beautiful but also contain a lot of useful scientific information about the structure, temperatures, and chemical makeup of a celestial object.

This image shows the sequences in the production of a Hubble image of nebula Messier 17:

Here’s another compelling argument for having telescopes that view the universe outside the spectrum of visible light – not everything in the universe emits visible light. There are many phenomena which can only be seen at certain wavelengths of light, for example, in the X-ray part of the spectrum, or in the ultraviolet. When we combine images taken at different wavelengths of light, we can get a better understanding of an object, because each wavelength can show us a different feature or facet of it. 

Just like infrared data can be made into something meaningful to human eyes, so can each of the other wavelengths of light, even X-rays and gamma-rays.

Below is an image of the M82 galaxy created using X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, and visible light data from Hubble. Also note how aesthetically pleasing the image is despite it not being just optical light:

Though Hubble sees primarily visible light, it can see some infrared. And despite not being optimized for it, and being much less powerful than Webb, it still produced this stunning image of the Horsehead Nebula.

It’s a big universe out there – more than our eyes can see. But with all the telescopes now at our disposal (as well as the new ones that will be coming online in the future), we are slowly building a more accurate picture. And it’s definitely a beautiful one. Just take a look…

…At this Spitzer infrared image of a shock wave in dust around the star Zeta Ophiuchi.

…this Spitzer image of the Helix Nebula, created using infrared data from the telescope and ultraviolet data from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer.

…this image of the “wing” of the Small Magellanic Cloud, created with infrared data from Spitzer and X-ray data from Chandra.

…the below image of the Milky Way’s galactic center, taken with our flying SOFIA telescope. It flies at more than 40,000 feet, putting it above 99% of the  water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere– critical for observing infrared because water vapor blocks infrared light from reaching the ground. This infrared view reveals the ring of gas and dust around a supermassive black hole that can’t be seen with visible light. 

…and this Hubble image of the Mystic Mountains in the Carina Nebula.

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope HERE, or follow the mission on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Image Credits
Eagle Nebula: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team
Hubble Image Processing - Messier 17: NASA/STScI
Galaxy M82 Composite Image: NASA, CXC, JHU, D.Strickland, JPL-Caltech, C. Engelbracht (University of Arizona), ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Horsehead Nebula: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Zeta Ophiuchi: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Helix Nebula: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Wing of the Small Magellanic Cloud
X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ.Potsdam/L.Oskinova et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Milky Way Circumnuclear Ring: NASA/DLR/USRA/DSI/FORCAST Team/ Lau et al. 2013
Mystic Mountains in the Carina Nebula: NASA/ESA/M. Livio & Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)

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Why Webb Needs to Chill

Our massive James Webb Space Telescope just recently emerged from about 100 days of cryogenic testing to make sure it can work perfectly at incredibly cold temperatures when it’s in deep space. 

How cold did it get and why? Here’s the whole scoop…

Webb is a giant infrared space telescope that we are currently building. It was designed to see things that other telescopes, even the amazing Hubble Space Telescope, can’t see.  

Webb’s giant 6.5-meter diameter primary mirror is part of what gives it superior vision, and it’s coated in gold to optimize it for seeing infrared light.  

Why do we want to see infrared light?

Lots of stuff in space emits infrared light, so being able to observe it gives us another tool for understanding the universe. For example, sometimes dust obscures the light from objects we want to study – but if we can see the heat they are emitting, we can still “see” the objects to study them.

It’s like if you were to stick your arm inside a garbage bag. You might not be able to see your arm with your eyes – but if you had an infrared camera, it could see the heat of your arm right through the cooler plastic bag.


With a powerful infrared space telescope, we can see stars and planets forming inside clouds of dust and gas.

We can also see the very first stars and galaxies that formed in the early universe. These objects are so far away that…well, we haven’t actually been able to see them yet. Also, their light has been shifted from visible light to infrared because the universe is expanding, and as the distances between the galaxies stretch, the light from them also stretches towards redder wavelengths. 

We call this phenomena “redshift.”  This means that for us, these objects can be quite dim at visible wavelengths, but bright at infrared ones. With a powerful enough infrared telescope, we can see these never-before-seen objects.

We can also study the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars. Many of the elements and molecules we want to study in planetary atmospheres have characteristic signatures in the infrared.

Because infrared light comes from objects that are warm, in order to detect the super faint heat signals of things that are really, really far away, the telescope itself has to be very cold. How cold does the telescope have to be? Webb’s operating temperature is under 50K (or -370F/-223 C). As a comparison, water freezes at 273K (or 32 F/0 C).

How do we keep the telescope that cold? 

Because there is no atmosphere in space, as long as you can keep something out of the Sun, it will get very cold. So Webb, as a whole, doesn’t need freezers or coolers - instead it has a giant sunshield that keeps it in the shade. (We do have one instrument on Webb that does have a cryocooler because it needs to operate at 7K.)

Also, we have to be careful that no nearby bright things can shine into the telescope – Webb is so sensitive to faint infrared light, that bright light could essentially blind it. The sunshield is able to protect the telescope from the light and heat of the Earth and Moon, as well as the Sun.  

Out at what we call the Second Lagrange point, where the telescope will orbit the Sun in line with the Earth, the sunshield is able to always block the light from bright objects like the Earth, Sun and Moon.

How do we make sure it all works in space? 

By lots of testing on the ground before we launch it. Every piece of the telescope was designed to work at the cold temperatures it will operate at in space and was tested in simulated space conditions. The mirrors were tested at cryogenic temperatures after every phase of their manufacturing process.

The instruments went through multiple cryogenic tests at our Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Once the telescope (instruments and optics) was assembled, it even underwent a full end-to-end test in our Johnson Space Center’s giant cryogenic chamber, to ensure the whole system will work perfectly in space.  

What’s next for Webb? 

It will move to Northrop Grumman where it will be mated to the sunshield, as well as the spacecraft bus, which provides support functions like electrical power, attitude control, thermal control, communications, data handling and propulsion to the spacecraft.

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope HERE, or follow the mission on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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The Beauty of Webb Telescope’s Mirrors

The James Webb Space Telescope’s gold-plated, beryllium mirrors are beautiful feats of engineering. From the 18 hexagonal primary mirror segments, to the perfectly circular secondary mirror, and even the slightly trapezoidal tertiary mirror and the intricate fine-steering mirror, each reflector went through a rigorous refinement process before it was ready to mount on the telescope. This flawless formation process was critical for Webb, which will use the mirrors to peer far back in time to capture the light from the first stars and galaxies. 

The James Webb Space Telescope, or Webb, is our upcoming infrared space observatory, which will launch in 2019. It will spy the first luminous objects that formed in the universe and shed light on how galaxies evolve, how stars and planetary systems are born, and how life could form on other planets.  

A polish and shine that would make your car jealous

All of the Webb telescope’s mirrors were polished to accuracies of approximately one millionth of an inch. The beryllium mirrors were polished at room temperature with slight imperfections, so as they change shape ever so slightly while cooling to their operating temperatures in space, they achieve their perfect shape for operations.

The Midas touch

Engineers used a process called vacuum vapor deposition to coat Webb’s mirrors with an ultra-thin layer of gold. Each mirror only required about 3 grams (about 0.11 ounces) of gold. It only took about a golf ball-sized amount of gold to paint the entire main mirror!

Before the deposition process began, engineers had to be absolutely sure the mirror surfaces were free from contaminants. 

The engineers thoroughly wiped down each mirror, then checked it in low light conditions to ensure there was no residue on the surface.

Inside the vacuum deposition chamber, the tiny amount of gold is turned into a vapor and deposited to cover the entire surface of each mirror.

Primary, secondary, and tertiary mirrors, oh my!

Each of Webb’s primary mirror segments is hexagonally shaped. The entire 6.5-meter (21.3-foot) primary mirror is slightly curved (concave), so each approximately 1.3-meter (4.3-foot) piece has a slight curve to it.

Those curves repeat themselves among the segments, so there are only three different shapes — 6 of each type. In the image below, those different shapes are labeled as A, B, and C.

Webb’s perfectly circular secondary mirror captures light from the 18 primary mirror segments and relays those images to the telescope’s tertiary mirror.

The secondary mirror is convex, so the reflective surface bulges toward a light source. It looks much like a curved mirror that you see on the wall near the exit of a parking garage that lets motorists see around a corner.

Webb’s trapezoidal tertiary mirror captures light from the secondary mirror and relays it to the fine-steering mirror and science instruments. The tertiary mirror sits at the center of the telescope’s primary mirror. The tertiary mirror is the only fixed mirror in the system — all of the other mirrors align to it.

All of the mirrors working together will provide Webb with the most advanced infrared vision of any space observatory we’ve ever launched!

Who is the fairest of them all?

The beauty of Webb’s primary mirror was apparent as it rotated past a cleanroom observation window at our Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. If you look closely in the reflection, you will see none other than James Webb Space Telescope senior project scientist and Nobel Laureate John Mather!

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope HERE, or follow the mission on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Webb 101: 10 Facts about the James Webb Space Telescope

Did you know…?

1. Our upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will act like a powerful time machine – because it will capture light that’s been traveling across space for as long as 13.5 billion years, when the first stars and galaxies were formed out of the darkness of the early universe.

2. Webb will be able to see infrared light. This is light that is just outside the visible spectrum, and just outside of what we can see with our human eyes.

3. Webb’s unprecedented sensitivity to infrared light will help astronomers to compare the faintest, earliest galaxies to today’s grand spirals and ellipticals, helping us to understand how galaxies assemble over billions of years.

Hubble’s infrared look at the Horsehead Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

4. Webb will be able to see right through and into massive clouds of dust that are opaque to visible-light observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope. Inside those clouds are where stars and planetary systems are born.

5. In addition to seeing things inside our own solar system, Webb will tell us more about the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars, and perhaps even find the building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe.

Credit: Northrop Grumman

6. Webb will orbit the Sun a million miles away from Earth, at the place called the second Lagrange point. (L2 is four times further away than the moon!)

7. To preserve Webb’s heat sensitive vision, it has a ‘sunshield’ that’s the size of a tennis court; it gives the telescope the equivalent of SPF protection of 1 million! The sunshield also reduces the temperature between the hot and cold side of the spacecraft by almost 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

8.  Webb’s 18-segment primary mirror is over 6 times bigger in area than Hubble’s and will be ~100x more powerful. (How big is it? 6.5 meters in diameter.)

9.  Webb’s 18 primary mirror segments can each be individually adjusted to work as one massive mirror. They’re covered with a golf ball’s worth of gold, which optimizes them for reflecting infrared light (the coating is so thin that a human hair is 1,000 times thicker!).

10. Webb will be so sensitive, it could detect the heat signature of a bumblebee at the distance of the moon, and can see details the size of a US penny at the distance of about 40 km.

BONUS!  Over 1,200 scientists, engineers and technicians from 14 countries (and more than 27 U.S. states) have taken part in designing and building Webb. The entire project is a joint mission between NASA and the European and Canadian Space Agencies. The telescope part of the observatory was assembled in the world’s largest cleanroom at our Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Webb is currently at Northrop Grumman where the telescope will be mated with the spacecraft and undergo final testing. Once complete, Webb will be packed up and be transported via boat to its launch site in French Guiana, where a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket will take it into space.

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope HERE, or follow the mission on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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10 Frequently Asked Questions About the James Webb Space Telescope

Got basic questions about the James Webb Space Telescope and what amazing things we’ll learn from it? We’ve got your answers right here! 

The James Webb Space Telescope, or Webb, is our upcoming infrared space observatory, which will launch in 2021. It will spy the first luminous objects that formed in the universe and shed light on how galaxies evolve, how stars and planetary systems are born, and how life could form on other planets.

1. What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

Our James Webb Space Telescope is a giant space telescope that observes infrared light. Rather than a replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, it’s a scientific successor that will complement and extend its discoveries.

Being able to see longer wavelengths of light than Hubble and having greatly improved sensitivity will let Webb look further back in time to see the first galaxies that formed in the early universe, and to peer inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today.

2. What are the most exciting things we will learn?

We have yet to observe the era of our universe’s history when galaxies began to form

We have a lot to learn about how galaxies got supermassive black holes in their centers, and we don’t really know whether the black holes caused the galaxies to form or vice versa.

We can’t see inside dust clouds with high resolution, where stars and planets are being born nearby, but Webb will be able to do just that. 

We don’t know how many planetary systems might be hospitable to life, but Webb could tell whether some Earth-like planets have enough water to have oceans.

We don’t know much about dark matter or dark energy, but we expect to learn more about where the dark matter is now, and we hope to learn the history of the acceleration of the universe that we attribute to dark energy. 

And then, there are the surprises we can’t imagine!

3. Why is Webb an infrared telescope?

By viewing the universe at infrared wavelengths with such sensitivity, Webb will show us things never before seen by any other telescope. For example, it is only at infrared wavelengths that we can see the first stars and galaxies forming after the Big Bang. 

And it is with infrared light that we can see stars and planetary systems forming inside clouds of dust that are opaque to visible light, such as in the above visible and infrared light comparison image of the Carina Nebula.

4. Will Webb take amazing pictures like Hubble? Can Webb see visible light?

YES, Webb will take amazing pictures! We are going to be looking at things we’ve never seen before and looking at things we have seen before in completely new ways.

The beauty and quality of an astronomical image depends on two things: the sharpness and the number of pixels in the camera. On both of these counts, Webb is very similar to, and in many ways better than, Hubble. 

Additionally Webb can see orange and red visible light. Webb images will be different, but just as beautiful as Hubble’s. Above, there is another comparison of infrared and visible light Hubble images, this time of the Monkey Head Nebula.

5. What will Webb’s first targets be?

The first targets for Webb will be determined through a process similar to that used for the Hubble Space Telescope and will involve our experts, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and scientific community participants.

The first engineering target will come before the first science target and will be used to align the mirror segments and focus the telescope. That will probably be a relatively bright star or possibly a star field.

6. How does Webb compare with Hubble?

Webb is designed to look deeper into space to see the earliest stars and galaxies that formed in the universe and to look deep into nearby dust clouds to study the formation of stars and planets.

In order to do this, Webb has a much larger primary mirror than Hubble (2.5 times larger in diameter, or about 6 times larger in area), giving it more light-gathering power. It also will have infrared instruments with longer wavelength coverage and greatly improved sensitivity than Hubble

Finally, Webb will operate much farther from Earth, maintaining its extremely cold operating temperature, stable pointing and higher observing efficiency than with the Earth-orbiting Hubble.

7. What will Webb tell us about planets outside our solar system? Will it take photos of these planets?

Webb will be able to tell us the composition of the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system, aka exoplanets. It will observe planetary atmospheres through the transit technique. A transit is when a planet moves across the disc of its parent star. 

Webb will also carry coronographs to enable photography of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) near bright stars (if they are big and bright and far from the star), but they will be only “dots,” not grand panoramas. Coronographs block the bright light of stars, which could hide nearby objects like exoplanets.

Consider how far away exoplanets are from us, and how small they are by comparison to this distance! We didn’t even know what Pluto really looked like until we were able to send an observatory to fly right near it in 2015, and Pluto is in our own solar system!

8. Will we image objects in our own solar system?

Yes! Webb will be able to observe the planets at or beyond the orbit of Mars, satellites, comets, asteroids and objects in the distant, icy Kuiper Belt.

Many important molecules, ices and minerals have strong characteristic signatures at the wavelengths Webb can observe. 

Webb will also monitor the weather of planets and their moons. 

Because the telescope and instruments have to be kept cold, Webb’s protective sunshield will block the inner solar system from view. This means that the Sun, Earth, Moon, Mercury, and Venus, and of course Sun-grazing comets and many known near-Earth objects cannot be observed.

9. How far back will Webb see? 

Webb will be able to see what the universe looked like around a quarter of a billion years (possibly back to 100 million years) after the Big Bang, when the first stars and galaxies started to form.

10. When will Webb launch and how long is the mission?

Webb will launch in 2021 from French Guiana on a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket. 

Webb’s mission lifetime after launch is designed to be at least 5-½ years, and could last longer than 10 years. The lifetime is limited by the amount of fuel used for maintaining the orbit, and by the possibility that Webb’s components will degrade over time in the harsh environment of space.

Looking for some more in-depth FAQs? You can find them HERE.

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope HERE, or follow the mission on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Carina Nebula: ESO/T. Preibisch
Monkey Head Nebula: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), and J. Hester

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Solar System: Things to Know This Week

What’s next for NASA? A quick look at some of the big things coming up:

1. We will add to our existing robotic fleet at the Red Planet with the InSight Mars lander set to study the planet’s interior.

This terrestrial planet explorer will address one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science - understanding the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) more than four billion years ago.

2. The Mars 2020 rover will look for signs of past microbial life, gather samples for potential future return to Earth.

The Mars 2020 mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on the Red Planet in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself. The Mars 2020 rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a “cache” on the surface of Mars.

3. The James Webb Space Telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, studying the history of our Universe in infrared.

Webb will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own solar system.

4. The Parker Solar Probe will “touch the Sun,” traveling closer to the surface than any spacecraft before.

This spacecraft, about the size of a small car, will travel directly into the sun’s atmosphere about 4 million miles from our star’s surface. Parker Solar Probe and its four suites of instruments – studying magnetic and electric fields, energetic particles, and the solar wind – will be protected from the Sun’s enormous heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite heat shield.

5. Our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrives at the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in August 2018, and will return a sample for study in 2023.

This mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.

6. Launching in 2018, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will search for planets around 200,000 bright, nearby stars.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is the next step in the search for planets outside of our solar system (exoplanets), including those that could support life. The mission will find exoplanets that periodically block part of the light from their host stars, events called transits.

7. A mission to Jupiter’s ocean-bearing moon Europa is being planned for launch in the 2020s.

The mission will place a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter in order to perform a detailed investigation of Europa – a world that shows strong evidence for an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust and which could host conditions favorable for life.

8. We will launch our first integrated test flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, known as Exploration Mission-1.

The Space Launch System rocket will launch with Orion atop it. During Exploration Mission-1, Orion will venture thousands of miles beyond the moon during an approximately three week mission.

9. We are looking at what a flexible deep space gateway near the Moon could be.

We’ve issued a draft announcement seeking U.S. industry-led studies for an advanced solar electric propulsion (SEP) vehicle capability. The studies will help define required capabilities and reduce risk for the 50 kilowatt-class SEP needed for the agency’s near-term exploration goals.

10. Want to know more? Read the full story.

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8 Common Questions About Our James Webb Space Telescope

You might have heard the basics about our James Webb Space Telescope, or Webb, and still have lots more questions!  Here are more advanced questions we are frequently asked.  (If you want to know the basics, read this Tumblr first!)

Webb is our upcoming infrared space observatory, which will launch in 2021. It will spy the first luminous objects that formed in the universe and shed light on how galaxies evolve, how stars and planetary systems are born and how life could form on other planets.

1. Why is the mirror segmented? 

The James Webb Space Telescope has a 6.5-meter (21.3-foot) diameter mirror, made from 18 individual segments. Webb needs to have an unfolding mirror because the mirror is so large that it otherwise cannot fit in the launch shroud of currently available rockets.

The mirror has to be large in order to see the faint light from the first star-forming regions and to see very small details at infrared wavelengths. 

Designing, building and operating a mirror that unfolds is one of the major technological developments of Webb. Unfolding mirrors will be necessary for future missions requiring even larger mirrors, and will find application in other scientific, civil and military space missions.

2. Why are the mirrors hexagonal?

In short, the hexagonal shape allows a segmented mirror to be constructed with very small gaps, so the segments combine to form a roughly circular shape and need only three variations in size. If we had circular segments, there would be gaps between them.

Finally, we want a roughly circular overall mirror shape because that focuses the light into the most symmetric and compact region on the detectors. 

An oval mirror, for example, would give images that are elongated in one direction. A square mirror would send a lot of the light out of the central region.

3. Is there a danger from micrometeoroids?

A micrometeoroid is a particle smaller than a grain of sand. Most never reach Earth’s surface because they are vaporized by the intense heat generated by the friction of passing through the atmosphere. In space, no blanket of atmosphere protects a spacecraft or a spacewalker.

Webb will be a million miles away from the Earth orbiting what we call the second Lagrange point (L2). Unlike in low Earth orbit, there is not much space debris out there that could damage the exposed mirror. 

But we do expect Webb to get impacted by these very tiny micrometeoroids for the duration of the mission, and Webb is designed to accommodate for them.

All of Webb’s systems are designed to survive micrometeoroid impacts.

4. Why does the sunshield have five layers?

Webb has a giant, tennis-court sized sunshield, made of five, very thin layers of an insulating film called Kapton.  

Why five? One big, thick sunshield would conduct the heat from the bottom to the top more than would a shield with five layers separated by vacuum. With five layers to the sunshield, each successive one is cooler than the one below. 

The heat radiates out from between the layers, and the vacuum between the layers is a very good insulator. From studies done early in the mission development five layers were found to provide sufficient cooling. More layers would provide additional cooling, but would also mean more mass and complexity. We settled on five because it gives us enough cooling with some “margin” or a safety factor, and six or more wouldn’t return any additional benefits.

Fun fact: You could nearly boil water on the hot side of the sunshield, and it is frigid enough on the cold side to freeze nitrogen!

5. What kind of telescope is Webb?

Webb is a reflecting telescope that uses three curved mirrors. Technically, it’s called a three-mirror anastigmat.

6. What happens after launch? How long until there will be data?

We’ll give a short overview here, but check out our full FAQ for a more in-depth look.

In the first hour: About 30 minutes after liftoff, Webb will separate from the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. Shortly after this, we will talk with Webb from the ground to make sure everything is okay after its trip to space.

In the first day: About 10.5 hours after launch, Webb will pass the Moon’s orbit, nearly a quarter of the way to Lagrange Point 2 (L2).

In the first week: We begin the major deployment of Webb. This includes unfolding the sunshield and tensioning the individual membranes, deploying the secondary mirror, and deploying the primary mirror.

In the first month: As the telescope cools in the shade of the sunshield, we turn on the warm electronics and initialize the flight software. As the telescope cools to near its operating temperature, parts of it are warmed with electronic heaters. This prevents condensation as residual water trapped within some of the materials making up the observatory escapes into space.

In the second month: We will turn on and operate Webb’s Fine Guidance Sensor, NIRCam, and NIRSpec instruments. 

The first NIRCam image, which will be an out-of-focus image of a crowded star field, will be used to identify each mirror segment with its image of a star in the camera. We will also focus the secondary mirror.

In the third month: We will align the primary mirror segments so that they can work together as a single optical surface. We will also turn on and operate Webb’s mid-infrared instrument (MIRI), a camera and spectrograph that views a wide spectrum of infrared light. By the end of the third month, we will be able to take the first science-quality images. Also by this time, Webb will complete its journey to its L2 orbit position.

In the fourth through the sixth month: We will complete the optimization of the telescope. We will test and calibrate all of the science instruments.

After six months: Webb will begin its science mission and start to conduct routine science operations.

7. Why not assemble it in orbit?

Various scenarios were studied, and assembling in orbit was determined to be unfeasible.

We examined the possibility of in-orbit assembly for Webb. The International Space Station does not have the capability to assemble precision optical structures. Additionally, space debris that resides around the space station could have damaged or contaminated Webb’s optics. Webb’s deployment happens far above low Earth orbit and the debris that is found there.

Finally, if the space station were used as a stopping point for the observatory, we would have needed a second rocket to launch it to its final destination at L2. The observatory would have to be designed with much more mass to withstand this “second launch,” leaving less mass for the mirrors and science instruments.

8. Who is James Webb?

This telescope is named after James E. Webb (1906–1992), our second administrator. Webb is best known for leading Apollo, a series of lunar exploration programs that landed the first humans on the Moon. 

However, he also initiated a vigorous space science program that was responsible for more than 75 launches during his tenure, including America’s first interplanetary explorers.

Looking for some more in-depth FAQs? You can find them HERE.

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope HERE, or follow the mission on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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James Webb Space Telescope Mirror Seen in Full Bloom

It’s springtime and the deployed primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope looks like a spring flower in full bloom.

In this photo, NASA technicians lifted the telescope using a crane and moved it inside a clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Once launched into space, the Webb telescope’s 18-segmented gold mirror is specially designed to capture infrared light from the first galaxies that formed in the early universe, and will help the telescope peer inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today.

Image credit: NASA, Desiree Stover

James Webb Space Telescope Mirrors Will Piece Together Cosmic Puzzles

The primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope consisting of 18 hexagonal mirrors looks like a giant puzzle piece standing in the massive clean room of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Appropriately, combined with the rest of the observatory, the mirrors will help piece together puzzles scientists have been trying to solve throughout the cosmos.

Webb’s primary mirror will collect light for the observatory in the scientific quest to better understand our solar system and beyond. Using these mirrors and Webb’s infrared vision scientists will peer back over 13.5 billion years to see the first stars and galaxies forming out of the darkness of the early universe. Unprecedented infrared sensitivity will help astronomers to compare the faintest, earliest galaxies to today’s grand spirals and ellipticals, helping us to understand how galaxies assemble over billions of years. Webb will see behind cosmic dust clouds to see where stars and planetary systems are being born. It will also help reveal information about atmospheres of planets outside our solar system, and perhaps even find signs of the building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe.

The Webb telescope was mounted upright after a “center of curvature” test conducted at Goddard. This initial center of curvature test ensures the integrity and accuracy, and test will be repeated later to verify those same properties after the structure undergoes launch environment testing. In the photo, two technicians stand before the giant primary mirror.

Credit: NASA

10 “Out of This World" Facts About the James Webb Space Telescope

Wouldn’t it be neat to see a period of the universe’s history that we’ve never seen before? That’s exactly what the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be able to do…plus more!

Specifically, Webb will see the first objects that formed as the universe cooled down after the Big Bang. We don’t know exactly when the universe made the first stars and galaxies – or how for that matter. That is what we are building Webb to help answer.

Here are 10 awesome facts about this next generation space telescope:

1. The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s largest and next premier space observatory. It will extend the discoveries of the Hubble Space telescope and observe the birthplaces of stars, galaxies, planets and life over billions of years.

2. It is named after James Webb, NASA’s second administrator and champion of our science.

3. At 3 stories high and the size of a tennis court, it will be 100 times more powerful than Hubble!

4. It is so big that it has to fold origami-style to fit in the rocket, which is only 5.4 meters wide…And then it will unfurl, segment by segment, once in space.

5. The telescope will observe infrared light with unprecedented sensitivity. It will see the first galaxies born after the Big Bang over 13.5 billion years ago.

6. Webb’s infrared cameras are so sensitive they must be shielded from light from the sun, Earth, and moon. The 5-layer sunshield is like having sunblock of SPF 1 million.

7. Webb will orbit the sun 1 million miles from Earth, where the telescope will operate at temperatures below -390 F (-235 C).

8. Webb’s mirrors are coated with a super thin layer of gold only about 1000 atoms thick to optimize their reflectivity in the infrared.

9. Webb will launch from French Guiana in 2018. It is launched near the equator because the faster spin of Earth there gives the rocket an extra push.

10. Webb is an international mission, with contributions from the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency. Once operational, scientists from all over the world will be able to use Webb to explore our solar system, planets outside our solar system, stars and galaxies.

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NASA’s Fleet of Planet-hunters and World-explorers

Around every star there could be at least one planet, so we’re bound to find one that is rocky, like Earth, and possibly suitable for life. While we’re not quite to the point where we can zoom up and take clear snapshots of the thousands of distant worlds we’ve found outside our solar system, there are ways we can figure out what exoplanets light years away are made of, and if they have signs of basic building blocks for life. Here are a few current and upcoming missions helping us explore new worlds:


Launched in 2009, the Kepler space telescope searched for planets by looking for telltale dips in a star’s brightness caused by crossing, or transiting, planets. It has confirmed more than 1,000 planets; of these, fewer than 20 are Earth-size (therefore possibly rocky) and in the habitable zone – the area around a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. Astronomers using Kepler data found the first Earth-sized planet orbiting in the habitable zone of its star and one in the habitable zone of a sun-like star.

In May 2013, a second pointing wheel on the spacecraft broke, making it not stable enough to continue its original mission. But clever engineers and scientists got to work, and in May 2014, Kepler took on a new job as the K2 mission. K2 continues the search for other worlds but has introduced new opportunities to observe star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies and supernovae.

Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)

Revving up for launch around 2017-2018, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will find new planets the same way Kepler does, but right in the stellar backyard of our solar system while covering 400 times the sky area. It plans to monitor 200,000 bright, nearby stars for planets, with a focus on finding Earth and Super-Earth-sized planets. 

Once we’ve narrowed down the best targets for follow-up, astronomers can figure out what these planets are made of, and what’s in the atmosphere. One of the ways to look into the atmosphere is through spectroscopy.  

As a planet passes between us and its star, a small amount of starlight is absorbed by the gas in the planet’s atmosphere. This leaves telltale chemical “fingerprints” in the star’s light that astronomers can use to discover the chemical composition of the atmosphere, such as methane, carbon dioxide, or water vapor. 

James Webb Space Telescope

Launching in 2018, NASA’s most powerful telescope to date, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will not only be able to search for planets orbiting distant stars, its near-infrared multi-object spectrograph will split infrared light into its different colors- spectrum- providing scientists with information about an physical properties about an exoplanet’s atmosphere, including temperature, mass, and chemical composition. 

Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope is better than ever after 25 years of science, and has found evidence for atmospheres bleeding off exoplanets very close to their stars, and even provided thermal maps of exoplanet atmospheres. Hubble holds the record for finding the farthest exoplanets discovered to date, located 26,000 light-years away in the hub of our Milky Way galaxy.

Chandra X-ray Observatory

Chandra X-ray Observatory can detect exoplanets passing in front of their parent stars. X-ray observations can also help give clues on an exoplanet’s atmosphere and magnetic fields. It has observed an exoplanet that made its star act much older than it actually is

Spitzer Space Telescope

Spitzer Space Telescope has been unveiling hidden cosmic objects with its dust-piercing infrared vision for more than 12 years. It helped pioneer the study of atmospheres and weather on large, gaseous exoplanets. Spitzer can help narrow down the sizes of exoplanets, and recently confirmed the closest known rocky planet to Earth.


The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is an airplane mounted with an infrared telescope that can fly above more than 99 percent of Earth’s atmospheric water vapor. Unlike most space observatories, SOFIA can be routinely upgraded and repaired. It can look at planetary-forming systems and has recently observed its first exoplanet transit

What’s Coming Next?

Analyzing the chemical makeup of Earth-sized, rocky planets with thin atmospheres is a big challenge, since smaller planets are incredibly faint compared to their stars. One solution is to block the light of the planets’ glaring stars so that we can directly see the reflected light of the planets. Telescope instruments called coronagraphs use masks to block the starlight while letting the planet’s light pass through. Another possible tool is a large, flower-shaped structure known as the starshade. This structure would fly in tandem with a space telescope to block the light of a star before it enters the telescope. 

All images (except SOFIA) are artist illustrations.

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This is my voice, but these are not my words

James Webb, “This is my voice, but these are not my words,” 2015. Two writers were given the same private dossier of visual images and asked to respond to them with a series of associative, literary “visions” for an actor to voice. The whispered voice is broadcast from a hyper-directional speaker in a darkened cellar underneath the gallery only accessible through a trapdoor.

“She hid in the greenhouse and enveloped herself in the overgrown foliage that had taken over the room. The boy had told her not to go near the plants, but to her that only meant he would not look for her there. It was the perfect plan, she thought. She would finally beat him at hide and seek. How could she know what lived in the shadow of the immense plants and how hungry it was?” - an extract from the text, written by Louis Viljoen.

Selected audio extracts can be heard here: https://soundcloud.com/theotherjameswebb/this-is-my-voice-but-these-are-not-my-words-extract

Commissioned writers: Amy Jephta, Louis Viljoen
Voice: Rebecca Makin-Taylor

This artwork was exhibited on “Xenagogue,” James Webb’s solo exhibition at the Hordaland Kunstsenter, curated by Anthea Buys, in August 2015.

Photograph by Bjørn Mortensen.

Courtesy the artist, Hordaland Kunstsenter, blank projects, and Galerie Imane Farès.