The James Webb space telescope has been NASA’s main focus for the past several years as they have shifted their primary activities from launching humans into space to developing new technology such as telescopes and planetary rovers. Finally launched into space on December 25, 2021, it is now powering on and testing its instruments before going into full operation later this year.
The Need for a New Space Telescope
Since 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has been the main source of images and research into the deepest recesses of outer space, delivering an unprecedented trove of information during that time. However, due to orbital decay, the telescope will inevitably be unusable as it will eventually fall into Earth’s atmosphere and be destroyed. Additionally, new technology over the past 30 years has made it possible to construct much more powerful telescopes that can peer even further into deep space and other solar systems. For these reasons, production of the James Webb space telescope began in the mid-2000s with NASA collaborating with the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency.
First Targets for James Webb Telescope
Once the James Webb Telescope goes into operation in June 2022, it will already have a large backlog of targets to work through. The first of these that many scientists are excited about is a series of exoplanets, which are planets that orbit stars other than the Sun in different parts of our Milky Way Galaxy. There are a number of reasons that these exoplanets are such a profound source of scientific curiosity. First of all, the little that we do know about these planets suggests that many of them are not analogous to any of the eight planets in our own system, so their natures are mostly mysterious to us. Some are massive like Jupiter, but even closer to their stars than Mercury is to ours. Another reason that these exoplanets are so exciting is their potential for hosting life. So far, Earth is the only planet we know of that has life on it, so any planet that seems like it may be similar to Earth is a good first place to look for extraterrestrial life. Many exoplanets are relatively small, rocky worlds that may have atmospheres and are similar distances from their stars as Earth is from the Sun. These planets are high on the James Webb Telescope’s list of targets due to this potential for life.