Get ready to find E.T. with the James Webb Space Telescope


March 15, 2013

JWST's golden mirrors

JWST's golden mirrors

Image Gallery (17 images)

NASA astronomers involved in the mission of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) say the successor to the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes will likely enable mankind to finally answer the existential question "Are we alone?" within this generation.

That was one of the clear themes in a recent panel discussion on the telescope at the South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, where a full scale model of the JWST was also on display outdoors all week long.

Matt Mountain, NASA's Telescope Scientist for the JWST, told a conference room full of space enthusiasts that "the James Webb Space Telescope will have a key role" in answering that question. Mountain explained that JWST is nearly three times the size of Hubble and better equipped to identify the spectrum signature of "living planets."

At the core of the advanced technologies aboard the telescope is a Near Infrared Camera. It's one of the tools JWST will use to capture sight of distant planets passing in front of stars, then analyze the data to be able to identify worlds where the signatures of life, like water and methane, are present.

Alberto Conti, the Innovation Scientist for the JWST, said that the mission of the telescope is of course broader than just searching for life. It will also attempt to search out evidence of the first stars, and look for insights into the formation of galaxies and planets as well as life.

Conti explained that one of the difficulties astronomers have had in looking into the formation process of planets is the presence of infrared "dust" that essentially blocks their view. JWST's cameras will be able to lift that infrared shroud to provide a better view.

The full scale model of JWST in front of the Austin skyline

Blake Bullock spoke on behalf of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems about some of the challenges of actually constructing the JWST. One of the key concerns for engineers involves managing the extreme temperature disparity between the sun-facing side and the "dark side" of the telescope, particularly given the sensitivity of its infrared camera.

The JWST has also been designed to fold up to be able to fit into a rocket and then to unfold itself upon deployment. It is scheduled for launch in 2018, when it will fly a million miles from Earth and set up shop to start sending images of deep space back to us.

About the Author
Eric Mack Eric Mack has been covering technology and the world since the late 1990s. As well as being a Gizmag regular, he currently contributes to CNET, NPR and other outlets. All articles by Eric Mack

I am happy that this telescope will be created. Sometime past years they were talking to stop funding and now i see some light!


I'm not against the SETI program, or the desire to find other habitable planets, but focusing on this aspect of the JWST missions plan minimizes the capability and promise of this incredible project.


I look forward to the 2018 launch of this telescope. I think it well worth the 8billion it will cost but it only has so much liquid helium (or whatever) how long will that last 3 years? If it's 8 years that is still too short,people will demand it be kept alive but NASA has said that it won't be designed to accept a repair,refueling mission.I understand, it is way over budget and years behind it's original launch window and they say it's too late for modifications,but I'm predicting right now will send out a refueling crew and they should make accommadations for this.

Paul Bedichek

After posting this comment about how long JWST will last I visited the website to do a little research.They don't use up coolant.It's a closed loop system the limiting factor is fuel to keep it at the right place at L2.They said it should last 5 to 10 years then Nobel prize winner John Mather said "it will last at least 10 years " Which means it will probably last considerably longer as NASA scientists are conservative on mission performance.It could be refueled in theory "probably by robots". If it had been designed for refueling it would have cost a lot more and it's too delicate for it.So if it lasts 15 years that means it will fail 20 years from now after a fabulous mission and by that time our technology will have progressed and a new telescope will be constructed (we hope).

Paul Bedichek
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