18-hexagon mirrors shine bright gold in a new photo released by NASA this week. Technicians look on as a crane carefully lifts the expensive piece of hardware. The primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope already looks immaculate, but the crane was positioning the massive mirror into a clean room to make sure.
You’re looking at the mirror that will capture the next set of memorable space images. From the dust clouds where stars are born to the planetary systems where life may be forming.
Technicians will go over every inch of the mirror before packing it up and shipping it from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. In Houston, the James Webb Space Telescope will undergo a battery of tests as it inches closer to its October 2018 launch date.
Some of the tests performed on the JWST include vibration testing at Goddard Space Flight Center earlier this year. The primary mirror was tucked inside a special 4-story portable clean tent and moved to the test facility. Here, the mirror got a taste of what it will feel when the Ariane V rocket it’s riding on launches.
Testing done here makes sure the telescope can handle the bumpy launch and trip to its L2 orbit.
James Webb Space Telescope is the spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. But it won’t replace it right away. The Hubble still has some fight left in it. Last June, NASA extended the science operations contract through June 30, 2021. The science community will be pouring over Hubble data deep into the 2020s.
What the James Webb Space Telescope will do is build on the knowledge provided by the Hubble. Its powerful optics will capture light from some of the oldest galaxies in the universe. The huge mirror will soak in light from nearby nebulas. But the big one many space fans will be watching for is what JWST sees around exoplanets. One of the main reasons this telescope was built is to study the atmospheres around exoplanets. Do these atmospheres have the building blocks of life?
Armed with coronagraphs to block out the light of bright stars, the JWST can directly image an exoplanet. Now, it won’t look much more than a dot – but scientists around the world can do a lot with that dot. Using spectroscopy, we can learn about a planet’s weather, makeup, seasons, rotation and more.
Is there a planet out there like our own? We won’t know until we look and JWST is designed to do just that.
Testing and assembly of the entire spacecraft will continue through 2017 and early 2018. Final assembly and testing will take place at a Northrop Grumman facility, probably in Colorado, before the telescope launches from French Guiana.
It’ll be an anxious day as the $8 billion+ telescope heads to space.