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The James Webb Space Telescope: Its History and Most Recent Photographs From Space

Science, nature and the environment, with regard to human impact, are subjects to which Chris applies his passions for research and writing.

Illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope

Illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope

A Comment About the Updates To This Article

Since originally publishing this article I have been updating it with new information, photos, and videos. I will continue adding the newest information at the beginning of the article. If you want to know more about the history and the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, scroll down to the headings that interest you.

Important Events Since the Launch of the Webb Telescope Including a Selfie

There have been several important events since Webb launched on December 25, 2021.

  • The telescope has traveled over a million miles to a position where the Earth stands between it and the Sun.
  • Webb has begun orbiting the sun, keeping pace with the Earth. This way, NASA will never lose contact with the telescope.
  • In February and March 2022, Webb took two selfies to show that the nineteen individual mirrors had expanded on mechanical arms to create one large mirror which is approximately 21 feet in diameter. This is the largest mirror ever made for a space telescope.
  • The first scientific images taken by Webb were released on July 12, 2022.

Selfies of the James Webb Space Telescope

Selfie of the James Webb Space Telescope in February 2022.

Selfie of the James Webb Space Telescope in February 2022.

Selfie of Webb in March 2022

Selfie of Webb in March 2022

Two Selfies of the Webb Telescope

The two images above are of the James Webb Space Telescope, taken in February and March 2022. They show how the smaller, individual mirrors had been successfully deployed to create one 21-foot mirror, the largest ever used with a space telescope.

Deep Field Image

Webb Deep Field Image

This Webb deep field image was released by NASA in July 2022. The bodies with light projecting outward are stars. All other lights are galaxies. In this photograph, we are seeing farther into space than anyone who came before us. The furthest galaxies in this image are 13.1 billion lightyears from Earth. The light had been traveling for 13.1 billion years until the second it struck Webb's mirror and the photo was taken. That means we are seeing those galaxies as they were in their infancy.

The Carina Nebula, the Birthplace of Stars

Photo of the Carina Nebula taken by the James Webb Space Telescope in July 2022.

Photo of the Carina Nebula taken by the James Webb Space Telescope in July 2022.

Carina Nebula

This kind of nebula is located in interstellar space and should not be confused with planetary nebulae which surround dying stars.

Interstellar nebulae, like the Carina Nebula, are the birthplaces of stars and planets. A nebula consists of hydrogen, dust, and other interstellar gases that clump together and attract more and more material as they grow larger. Eventually, these bodies become so dense, that they transform into stars. Smaller bodies become new planets.

Webb's infrared camera enables it to penetrate the dust and gas to reveal what is happening inside. Hubble was not able to penetrate this barrier because it uses optical light rather than infrared light for its photography.

Stephan's Quintet

A Photo of Stephan's Quintet, a group of five galaxies in close proximity to each other.

A Photo of Stephan's Quintet, a group of five galaxies in close proximity to each other.

Stephan's Quintet

Stephan's Quintet is a grouping of five galaxies in close proximity to each other. At the center-right of the photo above, shock waves emanate outward as one of the galaxies crashes through the cluster.

Webb's depth of field and sharp images far surpass those of Hubble and any other space telescopes to date.

Southern Ring Nebula

Emissions of dust and gas surround a dying star.

Emissions of dust and gas surround a dying star.

The Southern Ring Nebula, a Dying Star

The Southern Ring Nebula is known as a planetary nebula, not to be confused with an interstellar nebula. The Webb telescope revealed to scientists for the first time, the cloud of gas and dust that surrounds the star at the center. This identifies the star as a red giant or a dying star.

Exoplanet With Water

Webb image of an Earth-like planet with signatures of water.

Webb image of an Earth-like planet with signatures of water.

Atmospheric Composition of an Exoplanet

The above image is an Earth-like planet known to astronomers as WASP 96b which lies 1,150 lightyears from Earth. The graph overlaying the planet shows the occurrences of atmospheric water in the form of clouds and haze. While Hubble also detected water in a 2013 image, Webb has provided far greater detail. Astronomers are excited about using Webb to find more exoplanets with water.

Post Launch Updates

At 7:20 AM on Christmas day, 2021, the Ariane rocket provided by the European Space Agency, successfully took off from the Arianespace ELA-3 Launch Complex in French Guiana, South America carrying the James Webb Space Telescope. Twenty-nine days after the launch it will begin orbiting the Sun at a place known as the Lagrange 2 or L2 orbit. This is the ideal location that will help conserve the precious fuel supply of "The Webb". (See JWST Halo Orbit video below).

By the way, the launch and everything that followed so far were flawless.

The Launch of the James Webb "The Webb" Space Telescope

James Webb "The Webb" Space Telescope Breaks Away From the Final Section of the Launch Vehicle

JWST Halo Orbit Around L2 Sun Earth

Pre-launch: The Launch of the James Webb Space Telescope Is Hours Away

The launch date for the James Webb Space Telescope is Saturday, December 25, 2021 at 7:20 AM. Live broadcasting starting at 6:00 AM.

The telescope will lift off from the Arianespace ELA-3 launch complex at European Spaceport near Kourou, French Guiana.

Watch the launch live at Official NASA Broadcast

Looking Ahead: Exploring Space With "The Webb" space telescope

“Space, the final frontier…” Those words from the opening segment of each of the original Star Trek episodes express how many of us feel about the exploration of space. Through science fiction films, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing people travel through space to explore new worlds, but reality calls us back from time to time, and we remember that the footprint of man can be found on only two celestial surfaces, Earth and the Earth’s moon.

Many would like to see us go again into space with the goal of walking on distant planets. What can be discovered by using this approach? We can witness, up close, the terrain, the environment, weather, and possibly ice or liquid water, even life. But is this the only way to explore space? Is it the best way to observe what lies, “out there”?

 Buzz Aldrin Walks on the Moon, July 20, 1969

Buzz Aldrin Walks on the Moon, July 20, 1969

The Beginning of the James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb was the second administrator of NASA from 1961 to 1968 during a time when venturing beyond the confines of Earth’s atmosphere was known as the “space race”. Webb was less interested in winning a race than he was in strengthening research, universities and the aerospace industry.

What is the best way to explore space? Will we learn more by sending men to Mars, or will our understanding of the universe find more knowledge through unmanned ventures?

In 1996, NASA along with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency began work on what at the time was called, the Next Generation Space Telescope. The goal was to see farther and clearer in order to know the nature of the present universe as well as more about its origin.

These goals expressed the vision of James Webb to the extent that, in 2002, the name of the Next Generation Space Telescope was renamed, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

James E. Webb

James E. Webb

What Is the James Webb Space Telescope?

First and foremost it is a space telescope. That means it has been designed to function outside the Earth’s atmosphere. The most important part of a telescope is its mirror which bends light and focuses it to produce clear images. The mirror on the JWST is the largest mirror for a space telescope ever built. Here is a list of the main space telescopes which have been launched along with the space agency in charge of the space telescope, year launched, type of light gathered, and objects/phenomenon viewed.

  • Hubble Space Telescope / NASA, European Space Agency (ESA) / 1990 / Visible, ultraviolet light, Near-infrared light / deep-space objects
  • Chandra X-ray Observatory / NASA / 1999 / X-ray / Various
  • Spitzer Space Telescope / NASA / 2003 / Infrared / Distant and Nearby Objects
  • Herschel Space Observatory / ESA & NASA / 2009 / Far-Infrared / Various
  • Planck Observatory / ESA / 2009 / Microwave / Cosmic Microwave Background
  • Kepler Mission / NASA / 2009 / Visible / Extrasolar planets
  • Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope / NASA / 2008 / Gamma-ray / Various
  • Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer / NASA / 2004 / Gamma ray, X-ray, UV, Visible /Various
  • INTEGRAL / ESA / 2002 / Gamma ray, X-ray, Visible / Various
  • XMM-Newton / ESA / 1999 / X-ray / Various
  • GALEX / NASA / 2003 / Ultraviolet / Galaxies
  • COROT / CNES & ESA / 2006 / Visible / Extrasolar planets
  • Solar and Heliospheric Observatory / NASA & ESA / 1995 / Optical-Ultraviolet, Magnetic / Sun and Solar Wind
  • STEREO /NASA / 2006 / Visible, UV, Radio / Sun and Coronal Mass Ejections

Do We Need Another Space Telescope?

The mirrors of these space telescopes were made to gather a particular kind of light such as ultraviolet, infrared, x-ray, gamma-ray, visible. The kind of light the telescope gathers enables it to collect optimal images of certain objects or events.

The JWST will gather far infrared light.

The main characteristic that makes the JWST different from the others is the size of its mirror. The mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope is 8 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter. The JWST mirror is 21.4 feet (6.5 meters). The mirror of the JWST is so large, there is no launch vehicle with the capacity to carry it. For that reason, the mirror is made up of 18 hexagon shaped segments that will be folded up until it is deployed. At that time, the mirrors will unfold.

Other equipment:

  • Sunshield. The mirror will gather infrared light that will create enough heat to ruin the sensitive equipment onboard. For that reason, it must be kept very cool. The sunshield will block light from the sun, Moon, and Earth at all times.
  • Cameras.
  • Near infrared camera
  • Near infrared spetrograph
  • Mid-infrared instrument
  • Fine guidance sensor and near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph

Hubble View of the Pillars of Creation of the Eagle Nebula

Where Will the JWST Go, and What Will It Show Us?

The JWST will orbit the Sun about 930, 000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. It will complete one orbit of the Sun in the same amount of time as the Earth.

Infrared light will be gathered which means it will step in to perform the tasks of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Viewing in the infrared range of light, along with the absence of water vapor and carbon dioxide of Earth’s atmosphere, the JWST will be able to penetrate gas and dust of space. This will provide much clearer images than could be gathered from Earth-based infrared photography.

JWST will look into nebulae, clouds of dust such as the Orion Nebula, the Horeshead Nebula, and the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, where planets and stars are born.

We will be able to see circumstellar discs which are an accumulation of dust and debris that orbits stars and indicates the formation of a planet.

Because of the size of its mirror and its infrared technology, the JWST will look far beyond where the Hubble has been able to view. The oldest galaxies are those that are the farthest away. JWST will take images of those galaxies. And here is an amazing truth. The light from those galaxies that the JWST picks up will have been traveling for nearly 14 billion years, since not long after the Big Bang. That means the images will not represent the current condition of those galaxies but of their condition when they were very young. We will learn much more about how the universe came into being. In that sense, the JWST will be a time machine. Can we look back in time? Yes, we absolutely can.

Life-Size Model of the JWST

Life-Size Model of the JWST

When Will the James Web Space Telescope Be Launched?

The concept of a space telescope such as the JWST was suggested in a scientific workshop in 1989. In 1993, a committee was named by a Space Telescope Institute panel to oversee development of 21st century missions regarding space and astronomy.

Tom Young was chair of an independent review board chartered by NASA in 2018. Here is his explanation for the delays:

The two-and-a-half-year delay in the JWST has five root causes including human errors, embedded problems, lack of experience in new technologies like the sunshield, excessive optimism and systems complexity.

One such example of human error was damage to spacecraft valves when workers used the wrong solvent to clean them, having failed to check with the vendor. Such human errors accounted for 18 months of schedule delay and $600 million in additional costs.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

The Final Frontier

These are the realities and the amazing possibilities ahead of us, and they are well within the scope of most of our lifetimes. Is it worth the billions of dollars, the delays, and the disappointments? Is this "final frontier" worth exploring so we can know the truth? Is this potential knowledge a threat to ancient beliefs, or will it somehow confirm them? Certainly, we already know that this universe, as it exists today, did not appear in an instant of time but has been birthing, for billions of years, new suns, planets, and galaxies, expanding, growing, speeding outward into whatever lies beyond.

Source URLs

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Chris Mills

Comments

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on April 29, 2019:

Lawrence, good scientists have an insatiable hunger for more knowledge. I learned recently that scientists have estimated that there are 400 billion galaxies...not solar systems, galaxies. Thanks for reading.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on April 26, 2019:

Chris

Some spectacular images here. The Hubble telescope changed the way we understood space, it' still changing the way we understand it, and I think the James Webb telescope will do the same.

I read a few months ago that scientists are only happy with the answers to a question when it leaves them with two more questions, I think they'll be very happy with the JWT!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 26, 2019:

Interesting! Both the phenomenon called the JSWT and the conclusion concerning the existence of our universe. Thanks for doing the research and making this excellent presentation! Will be listening for the launch, meanwhile hoping that there are no more million-dollar errors.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on March 25, 2019:

Buddingscholar, keep watching and learning. The universe is about to be opened to us like never before.

BUDDINGSCHOLAR on March 25, 2019:

I am much interested in astronomy and planets sciences though am nt a major physics learner....awaiting to more in detail about hubble and the space

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on March 24, 2019:

Sean, it is great to see you again here on HP. With the science knowledge my wife taught me, with the knowledge I can gain from you, I bet I could be a science teacher. It would have been helpful if I had considered it a few years earlier :) Thanks for stopping by and for the constant gift of love.

Ioannis Arvanitis from Greece, Almyros on March 24, 2019:

I love it when you write about themes of physics, brother! I think that with a little help from your friends --meaning me, haha-- you could be a Science teacher! Respectful work we have here! Well done! Thank you for helping people understand the "magic" of physics.

Love has no frontiers!

Sean

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on March 23, 2019:

Onwar Hossen, Thank you.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on March 22, 2019:

It's always nice to see you, Becky. Glad you found the article informative. I love those Arizona dark skies. Beautiful.

Becky Katz from Hereford, AZ on March 22, 2019:

My daughter is really into watching the skies. We live out in the middle of nowhere and she invites her friends out here to set up their telescopes on my back patio. It is perfect for stargazing out here, since it is so dark. No light pollution around. They have spent the night out there about half the time when they come out. I just had to make sure they don't get so excited that they disturb the neighbors. Luckily, since we all have 4+ acres, there is plenty of room to keep from bothering if they just keep it down a little bit. I loved the information you provided.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on March 22, 2019:

That is funny Chris.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on March 22, 2019:

Eric, you threw me there for a minute. Right now, I am in Lowell, Massachusetts. when you mentioned growing up near the Lowell Observatory, I thought, wait, Eric grew up out East? Then I remembered the name back in Flagstaff. Yes, the night skies were awesome. I miss it.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on March 22, 2019:

Pamela, I am glad you learned something from the article. I'm with you, It is sad that the launch has been delayed so long. To me, it will be worth the wait.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on March 22, 2019:

Fantastic. Not something I would look up. I rely on great riders like yourself to broaden my horizons - so to speak.

You lived in Americas darkest city wasn't that cool at night. I grew up 3/4 mile from Lowell's Mars Hill observatory, wonderful. They practiced the lunar vehicle in our cinder lands - Shoemaker.

Touring Mt. Graham is awesome - a Vatican observatory?

Thanks for continuing my learning in this area.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 22, 2019:

I am sad about the launch delay as the things that we will learn sound fascinating. I learned so much from this article about the JWST.