The James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the hotly-anticipated successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomers from all over the world will use the data collected by the telescope to try to answer some of the big and wide-ranging questions we have about the universe.

The telescope instruments will be designed to work primarily in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, with some capability in the visible range (specifically red and orange colours). Through its unprecedented spatial resolution, wavelength coverage, and sensitivity, the JWST has the promise to revolutionise our understanding of the Universe. Its versatility will allow it to tackle a broad range of open questions in astrophysics.

Key expected scientific highlights include:

  • the identification of some of the first galaxies to form in the Universe;
  • the study of the formation of stars and planets; and
  • the characterisation of the atmospheres of planets around other stars.

What will it look for?
JWST will study every phase in the history of our Universe, from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang to the evolution of our own Solar System and everything in between.

It will find the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe, peer through dusty clouds to see stars forming planetary systems, and see the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth (connecting the Milky Way to our own Solar System). It won’t be looking for asteroids in space!

James E. Webb - second administrator of NASA
Who is James Webb?
James E. Webb was the second NASA administrator, running the agency between 1961 and 1968. He had great involvement in the Apollo missions. Despite the great political importance of landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, Webb saw the greater importance of the missions. He believed that a good balance between human space flight and science was essential as a catalyst for strengthening the USA’s universities and aerospace industry.

Who is working on it?
JWST is a joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The STFC, and also the UK Space Agency, has supported the construction of the mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) for the mission. There is significant UK involvement in JWST’s design, construction, and ultimately scientific exploitation.

How do I get to be involved?
At the University of Sussex, we are really looking forward to the launch of the JWST! Particularly keen is Stephen Wilkins, a Yorkshire born astrophysicist currently living in the South. After studying at Durham and Cambridge (where he obtained a PhD in Astronomy) he worked as a researcher at the University of Oxford. In 2013 he obtained a lectureship at the University of Sussex and in 2016 was promoted to senior lecturer.

Since 2018 Stephen has also been a Leadership in Public Engagement Fellow specifically concentrating on the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. His research focusses on the formation and evolution of the first galaxies to form in the Universe. This research combines both the running of computer simulations and the analysis of observations, predominantly from the Hubble Space Telescope.

James Webb Space Telescope from the Science & Technology Facilities Council
James Webb Space Telescope from the Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA