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AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
A full scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope on display in Washington, DC.

Space After Hubble: Webb, Planck and Herschel Telescopes Will Take Deeper Look at the Universe

May 13, 2010 08:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
As the Hubble Space Telescope enters its twilight years, preparations begin for the 2014 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope—one attempt by the United States to stay in the space race.

James Webb Telescope to Look at Early Universe

The shuttle Atlantis connected with the Hubble Space Telescope yesterday in order to begin a final set of repairs on the 19-year-old telescope. While repairs are expected to keep the Hubble operating at least until 2014, plans for a new telescope from NASA are already underway.

The new telescope, formerly known as the “Next Generation Space Telescope” and later renamed the James Webb Telescope, will have different capabilities. As described to Popular Science by deputy project manager John Decker, it is “intended to take the next, deeper look into the universe.”

According to McClatchy, the Hubble Space Telescope can capture optical light, the range of light visible to the human eye, but NASA explains that the James Webb Telescope will be able to see infrared light extremely well, which is exactly the range needed to look at very old galaxies in our universe. When light travels such vast distances of space and time, it experiences “red shift” that puts the light in the infrared range.

The mirror on the Webb will be about three times as large as the Hubble’s mirror, but scientists are using the lightweight and rare beryllium in order to keep the weight of the mirror to a minimum. Popular Science explains that the mirrors have been tested at extremely cold temperatures to see how they will warp when in space, so the mirrors created at room temperature will actually appear warped, and the cold will change them into the shape desired.

Another important difference between the Hubble and the Webb is that while the Hubble orbits the Earth just above the atmosphere, the Webb will be a million miles from Earth.

Background: The Hubble Telescope and Edwin Hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope, in its 19 years in space, has made many important discoveries, showing the existence of dark matter, discovering the age of the universe and helping astronomers identify planets outside our own solar system. It has also brought stunning photographs from the far reaches of the universe back to the people on Earth.

The Hubble is named after astronomer Edwin Hubble, who was the first to identify stars outside of the Milky Way and determined that there are millions of galaxies in the universe.

Related Topics: ESA to launch Planck and Herschel

The European Space Agency is set to launch two new telescopes—Plank and Herschel—soon after the Atlantis shuttle takes off on the Hubble repair mission. According to McClatchy, Herschel is designed to see infrared light. It will orbit the sun for three years and build a map of the sky. The ESA has been working on Herschel for more than 20 years. It will soon have the largest mirror in space and will look at the evolution and formation of stars.

Planck detects microwaves, and it is hoped that it will be able to take a close look at the microwaves from the earliest part of our universe. Both telescopes are far more precise than any U.S. telescope in space now.

Although the missions of Herschel and Planck are headed by the ESA, NASA and space agencies from other countries have helped with the mission. The United States may not be the controlling party in some of the most advanced space exploration missions of late, but it is a collaborator in many of them, just as the ESA collaborates with NASA for projects like the James Webb Telescope.

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