The Hubble Space Telescope is arguably the most productive single piece of scientific equipment ever built, helping astronomers produce thousands of papers, scientists prove the universe is rapidly expanding, and the public revel in the beauty of the cosmos. But we’re going to lose it soon. Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is already under construction. It’s the longest, most complicated, and most expensive mission NASA has ever attempted—and a new documentary from Discovery Channel entitled Telescope is taking you behind the build.
Roughly 400 years separate Galileo’s first telescope and Hubble, but both made existentially important discoveries with the same swath of light. What we can see (visible light) is only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. And because of our limited powers of perception, and Hubble’s, we don’t have access to all the secrets the universe holds. The JWST will be peering into the infrared spectrum of light, surveying the heat of the universe to figure out how galaxies and stars first formed.
“The Webb starts at the limits of Hubble,” says Dr. Matt Mountain, director of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C. He explains that the JWST will pick up where Hubble left off, and use infrared light to see how galaxies and stars formed after the Big Bang. Hubble could see them once they were there, but their formation is invisible to visible light. “We don’t know what happened between the Big Bang and those galaxies…we call it the Dark Ages,” Mountain told Nerdist. “The Webb will allow us to look into those Dark Ages to find out where the very first galaxies, where the very first stars came from.”
“We have no idea what we’re going to see.”
The Webb isn’t just a powerful telescope, it’s the largest, most complicated, and most powerful telescope ever built. When it launches in October of 2018 (hopefully), it will represent more than 8 billion dollars worth of science and engineering, 20 years of work, and the hopes and dreams of thousands of domestic and international partners. One hundred times more sensitive than Hubble and as delicate as an orchid, it’s NASA’s riskiest mission, ever.
Imagine you are asked to fold an origami crane. But it has to be size of a tennis court. And it has to perfectly unfurl in near absolute zero temperatures…after being packed inside a rocket and shot 1.5 million kilometers into space where no human can fix it if something goes wrong. Now you’re just beginning to understand the difficulty in constructing a telescope like the JWST. “It’s up there in complexity with the Large Hadron Collider,” says Mountain.
Telescope, directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn (and featuring interviews with scientists and engineers like Dr. Mountain), is a sweeping and engaging look at all of the challenges and triumphs the James Webb Space Telescope represents. With it, we may discover everything from how the first stars came to an exoplanet with a habitable atmosphere. Of course, the telescope has to get off the ground first.
Telescope premieres tonight on Discovery Channel as a part of “Science Weekend.” You can also watch Telescope tonight on Science Channel at 9pm.