The James Webb Space Telescope: Humanity’s Eye Into the Universe

There are some moments that will stay with you your entire life.  I’d be willing to bet that most of the people with whom I spent this morning at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center would put the experience in that category.  You see, we were able to see with our own eyes the amazing progress that’s being made on the James Webb Space Telescope, which will soon be humanity’s eye into the secrets and mysteries of the universe.

Administrator Bolden showcases the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Administrator Bolden showcases the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Just recently, we completed the first important optical measurement of JWST’s segmented mirror, called a Center of Curvature test, to measure the shape of Webb’s mirror before it goes into the testing chambers.  We also just finished the sunshield layers, which will protect Webb’s sensitive instruments from the sun once it’s in space.

As we reach for new heights for the benefit of all humankind, NASA has always sought to unravel the mysteries of our universe; to find out where we come from, where we are going, and whether we are alone in the universe.

We are building the James Webb Space Telescope to answer these age-old questions and to bring us to new heights in discovery, understanding and human progress.  Webb will allow us to explore ever further into the cosmos, seeing things far beyond the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope.  It will see the universe light up with the first galaxies to form after the Big Bang and study the formation of star systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth.

Webb will help us search for signs of life and learn more about the habitability of planets discovered by our fleet of planet hunters and world explorers, including Kepler and the upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.  Webb will also help us understand the evolution and composition of our own Solar System, from the icy moons around Jupiter and Saturn, to known comets and asteroids.  It will help us on our Journey to Mars by helping us understand more about the Red Planet, including Martian climate patterns.

Upon completion, Webb will be the largest and most complex space observatory that anyone on planet Earth has ever built.  At about the size of a tennis court, it will be folded origami-style to fit in the Ariane 5 rocket (about 5 meters wide), and will unfurl in cryogenic temperatures where materials behave in ways that defy everything we’re used to on Earth.  It will be launched from French Guiana in 2018.

Even before Webb allows us to rewrite textbooks and answer questions we have not yet thought to ask, it is already shattering the boundaries of space technology.  What’s more, it is changing the field of materials science.

Webb is the work of our nation, with more than 120 American universities, organizations, and companies in 27 states coast to coast (including Hawaii) bringing together some of the brightest minds in our country to make Webb a reality.  Webb’s findings will be incorporated into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education worldwide, inspiring future generations of explorers, scientists and engineers.  It will capture the imagination and dreams of millions who dare to look to the sky and wonder.

At the same time, it is an international collaboration — a partnership among NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).  NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is managing the development effort.  Northrop Grumman is the main industry partner and the Space Telescope Science Institute will operate Webb after launch.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “In a real sense all life is inter-related.  All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”  One might also say that we are in a web of mutuality … a “Webb” (pun intended) that has the potential to unite the world in understanding, discovery and awe.