A Time Machine Thirty Two Years in the Making

At the Dawn of Time… plus a few hundred million years

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is an Infra Red (IR) telescope as tall as a three story house, as long as a tennis court, weighing the same as a school bus (6200kg) and designed, built and tested over 32 years using 40 million hours to built it with people from 14 different countries who are part of 3 space agencies (NASA, ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency, CSA).

You may think it’s ‘just another Hubble’, but, whilst the images produced will be equally as stunning, the wavelengths (or colours) of light observed overlap a bit, and they’re both in space, that’s about all they’ve got in common.

The James Webb Space Telescope partly folded up

The James Webb Space Telescope partly folded up. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

Let’s Start at the Beginning

Thought of in a 1989 conference called “Next Generation Space Telescope Workshop” at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in the USA (with the JWST formally called the “Next Generation Space Telescope or NGST), scientists formally proposed it in 1996. They said it would be an Infra Red Telescope, using redder light than you can see (right so far) with a mirror larger than 4m in diameter (only 2.5 metres out!) with a budget of $500 million (Ah, just a mere $9.16bn out!).

2002 brought the selection of people to make it a reality, and 2004 marked the start of building work. By 2005, ESA’s spaceport in the French territory of French Guiana in north east South America was picked as the launch site. Being free from cyclones and earthquakes, and near the equator to give the reliable Ariane 5 rocket a boost in speed as it leaves the Earth due to Earth’s centripetal force, this was the perfect launch site.

Indeed, everything was going so well… until they had to redesign it in 2005 to pick only the worthiest of instruments to be on board. This led to the original 2007 launch date being pushed back.

An early concept of the JWST, called the Next Generation Space Telescope or NGST.