The Hubble Telescope, which has spent many years in outer space collecting data, has vastly increased our understanding of the universe. The James Webb Telescope is its successor and will expand this knowledge immensely. It is the most powerful space telescope that has ever been built, with a primary mirror which is 6.5-meters in diameter. This gives it the ability to scan back over 13.5 billion years allowing us to observe the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the universe.
The telescope had been created by the combined expertise of NASA, The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The object is scheduled to be launched into outer space, on an ESA Ariane V Booster from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana in 2018. Previously, telescopes that were launched into space relied on rigid structures for their stability. The Webb is the first of its kind to be built for both stability and mobility. Its honeycomb appearance is because of its 18-segment ‘golden’ primary mirror, which will need to be folded to fit inside its carrier. When the launch is complete and the telescope safely in space, the mirror will unfold to begin its observations.
The unusual design makes testing the telescope more difficult than others before. Each of the mirror’s 18 segments measures just over 4.2 feet and weighs 88 lbs. They are made of beryllium with a plating of gold. In addition to observing the formation of the universe’s first stars and galaxies, The Webb will be searching for information about the history of our solar system and many of the others that make up our galaxy. Like all other space exploration, a major part of the project is to locate other planets that may be capable of supporting life.
The telescope is undergoing a rigorous testing process, to be ready for its journey in 2018. This is a major part of being able to ensure that it will be safe to launch and to remain in outer space. Engineers believe that it is one of the most complicated pieces of hardware ever created, and they are doing everything they can to assess its performance. Testing new equipment has its complications and in December 2016, technicians detected ‘anomalous readings’ from the telescope during a series of vibration tests.
The unusual results caused engineers to pause their tests and conduct both visual and ultrasonic examinations to ascertain their origin. They found that the telescope had no visible signs of damage, and determined the reason for the unexpected readings had been the restraints that were needed to keep the massive item in place. NASA restarted their original testing process within 2 months adapting it to reflect possible deviations. The next phase of testing will determine if The Webb Telescope can withstand vibrations in all three dimensions, as this will be very important during its universal mission.