Next year, the most amazing space telescope that’s ever been built will be launched. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is going to give us a fascinating look into the universe.
But how do we decide what it’s going to look at? Well, that’s where scientists come in. As with all telescopes, individuals or groups will have to put forward their proposal for an area of study, be it a distant galaxy or an exoplanet, and hope their idea is picked.
NASA began accepting proposals for the telescope in early January. The telescope is scheduled to launch in October 2018, although it won’t be in its position 1.6 million kilometers (1 million miles) from Earth, beyond the orbit of the Moon, and ready to observe the universe until April 2019.
“Once the telescope is operational, it is expected to be available for science operations 8,776 hours per year,” Irene Klotz notes for Seeker. “Up to 10 percent of the time will be used at the director's discretion. The rest is for guaranteed and general observer programs.”
The first round of projects form part of the Guaranteed-Time Observer (GTO) program, with a second round called the Director’s Discretionary Early Release Science program.
JWST has a minimum lifetime of 5 years, although it has enough fuel to last about 10. And it’s definitely going to be a rather glorious few years, despite the $9 billion telescope being about 7 years behind schedule and significantly over the initial $1.6 billion budget.
Compared to Hubble, JWST is about seven times more powerful, with its primary mirror about three times larger than Hubble’s at 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) across. But while Hubble’s mirror was a single curved affair, JWST’s is made of 18 individual hexagonal segments, plated in gold, with a tennis court-sized sunshield protecting the telescope’s optics. The completed primary mirror was shown off for the first time in November 2016.
JWST will observe the universe in infrared light, rather than optical light like Hubble. But its capabilities are vast. It will be used to peer back and see the first stars and galaxies in the universe, and even see the birth of other planetary systems.
What it looks at specifically, though, will be down to the various scientists who put forward proposals. Rest assured that there will be plenty of interesting ideas on the table.