NASA’s new $10 billion telescope will teach Earthlings about faraway planets

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

NASA technicians lift the James Webb Space Telescope using a crane to move it inside a clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Photo by Desiree Stover/NASA.

On Christmas morning just after 4:20 a.m. Pacific time, something peculiar might streak across the sky — a rocket carrying the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), named after the late NASA administrator during the Apollo era. It succeeds the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990, and it could allow humanity to see farther away and farther back in time than ever before. 

“This telescope would be about six times bigger than the mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope. And it will be out a million miles away, so that's about four times as far as Earth is from the moon,” explains Tiffany Kataria, scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “And so the reason for that is that JWST needs to be in a cold and dark environment to operate effectively.”

She says JWST will help scientists understand planets outside our solar system. “With exoplanet science, we've kind of been filling in the blanks with theoretical models in terms of what other things might be in the atmosphere. And so with James Webb, we can actually start to test those models, test our predictions, and have the sensitivity and the precision we need to really answer those questions.”

JWST can also look at the glow/heat from the earliest stars that formed after the Big Bang, according to Kataria, which would advance scientists’ understanding of how stars form and evolve. 

What happens if the telescope malfunctions? She says engineers have developed well-studied contingency plans. “The reason that it takes so much time to get these telescopes into space is because they do conduct such rigorous testing and really try and cover every scenario that could take place, and so I'm confident that things will go the way they're supposed to.”