The James Webb telescope in pictures: Building a machine to see the beginning of the universe

The Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch in 2018, building upon the work of the Hubble Space Telescope to look even deeper into the Universe - see below for pictures of this incredible and complex device

For many of us the Hubble telescope is synonymous with space. Launched in 1990 and currently orbiting the Earth at a distance of 570 kilometres, the images it has produced of distant galaxies and nebula have guided the public’s imagination far beyond the confines of our planet.

But now Hubble’s successor is being assembled - an $8 billion project with a primary mirror (the main component that lets a telescope ‘see’) that is seven times the size of Hubble’s, allowing it to peer even deeper into the Universe, looking back in time to hopefully glimpse the formation of some of the first galaxies.

This is the James Webb Space telescope. Named in honour of Nasa’s second administrator and sometimes known as the JWST or just ‘Webb’ for short, the telescope is part of an international collaboration between Nasa, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Planning for Webb began back in 1996 and it’s scheduled to launch in 2018, but the engineers responsible for the telescope have just passed a major milestone – finishing and delivering the 18 hexagonal mirrors that will be fitted together to complete Webb’s 21-feet high primary mirror.

As well as this mirror, the telescope will also carry a variety of infrared instruments that will allow it to make new discoveries about the nature of the Universe, looking even further into space than is currently possible with Hubble.

A still from a video comparing the size of the Webb mirror with Hubble's. Credit: Nasa

Hubble can only look at light in the visible spectrum thrown off by stars and galaxies. However, as the Universe expands, this light has to travel further to reach us and is stretched by the Doppler effect and its wave length shifts from the visible spectrum to infrared. This is the same phenomenon that makes an ambulance siren sound differently when it's moving towards you and away from you.

Unfortunately, observing infrared light that has come from so far away is tricky and telescopes – even space telescopes –  can suffer from infrared interference generated by many different sources, including their own heat and the sun’s rays.

Webb will tackle this problem in two ways. Firstly, it will be far further away from the Earth than Hubble (1.5 million km away compared to Hubble’s distance of 570km) and it will also be equipped with a sunshield – five layers of reflective material that will point back towards the Sun reflect its heat as well as its infrared rays.

Combining these two factors will place Webb in a bubble of calm and stillness, giving its sensitive instruments the chance to glimpse far further back into the cosmos than has even been possible before. It's hope that it will be able to see some of the very first stars formed in the universe, looking back to just 100 million years after the Big Bang. By the time this light reaches Webb it will have travled for about 13.5 billion years.


Suggested Topics
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
booksThe Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Service Desk Engineer-(Support, ITIL, Software Vendor)

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Engineer-(Support, S...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home