Will NASA’s newest telescope find the first light of the universe?

NASA is readying two of the most advanced space telescopes for launch in 2018. One will look back to the first light of the universe, and the other is expected to find hundreds, if not thousands, of Earth-like planets in our cosmic neighborhood.

The bigger of the two, the James Webb Space Telescope, appears as if it were straight out of science fiction.

Complicated construction in factory-type setting (NASA)
The Webb telescope’s mirror panels are made of beryllium coated with thin gold weighing no more than a golf ball. (NASA)

A honeycomb of 18 golden mirror segments sit atop the Webb telescope’s diamond-shaped, light-blocking shield. It looks nothing like its predecessor, the tube-shaped Hubble telescope that has brought us iconic images of space since it launched in 1990.

The Webb will be able to see the universe differently as it takes pictures in the infrared spectrum. Infrared telescopes can “see” heat, but Webb will spot “cooler” objects that would be invisible to other telescopes: planets, interstellar dust and even stars being born. With its massive, 6.5-meter primary mirror, Webb will become the world’s most powerful infrared space telescope.

The U.S. space agency is confident Webb will be able to take pictures of objects that are about 10 billion times fainter than the dimmest stars we can see from Earth, and objects up to 100 times fainter than what the Hubble telescope can see.

Awe-inspiring research

Scientists believe Webb’s powerful eye should be sharp enough to see the first lights in the universe. Light from the first galaxies has been traveling toward the Earth for about 13.5 billion years, and Webb should be able to capture images of our newborn universe.

John Mather, a Nobel Prize–winning scientist who works on the Webb telescope, said the elements of life were produced billions of years ago. “We are here today because of them — and we want to better understand how that came to be.”

NASA, along with its partners, the European and Canadian space agencies, expects to launch the Webb telescope from French Guiana in October 2018.

In addition to scoping out the early universe, the Webb telescope will explore the atmospheres of faraway planets. Potentially, it could find indicators that a planet could support life. Scientists will use data from the Webb and from another space telescope expected to launch in early 2018, known as TESS.

TESS surveys the heavens

TESS stands for “Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.” Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars outside of our solar system.

TESS’s mission is to search for potentially habitable planets in Earth’s neighborhood. During its two-year mission, “TESS should discover thousands of new exoplanets” within 200 light years of Earth, said George Ricker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The telescope will look at star flickers: the apparent dip in a star’s brightness caused by an orbiting planet passing in front of the star. TESS will attempt to point out the most interesting nearby planets for telescopes and teams of scientists to examine further. NASA expects to launch TESS on a SpaceX rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Artist's conception of telescope in space (NASA)
Scientists hope the TESS telescope will find about 500 Earth-like planets in its two-year scan of the skies. (NASA)

Data from TESS and the James Webb Space Telescope will be available to astronomers and the public through the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The institute is a partnership between NASA and universities around the world

Scientists hope the two telescopes will together tell us more about the universe’s past and humanity’s future. “I’m still hopeful that in my lifetime, we will discover the existence of life outside of our solar system,” said Jeff Volosin, TESS’s project manager. “And I’m excited to be part of a NASA mission that serves as a key stepping stone in that search.”