No other invention symbolizes mankind’s ingenuity quite like the telescope. It’s as if we’re playing God. Peering into the vastness of space and the great beyond through a magnified lens is essentially time travel. When light from distant galaxies travels through the lenses of our telescopes, we are looking at a fossil of time. Gazing eerily into what has come and gone like you’re looking at a picture. Its counterpart, the microscope, shares equal stature, but on the atomic level. Both devices bridge the gap between these two human intellectual curiosities, theoretically encompassing all matter. Each technology signifies—in conjunction with one another—the entire spectrum of existence.
The Hubble Telescope is currently circling Earth’s atmosphere at 340 miles above sea level and can see approximately 13.3 billion years into the past. Could we theoretically see our moment of conception with something more high-powered? Could we really see The Big Bang? Our original moment of conception? Through NASA’s Hubble Telescope, astronomers discovered that the observable universe to be approximately 13.77 billon years old, which means that the Hubble was already nearly capable of witnessing The Big Bang. The new telescope wouldn’t even need to be twice as powerful to reach all the way back to conception.
The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s successor to the Hubble Telescope, is approximately 100 times more powerful. It will be launched December 18, 2021. NASA’s built its new state-of-the-art telescope in conjunction with the European Space Agency and Canada. University of Texas Austin astronomer Caitlin Casey says, “We are looking for the first light that turned on at the very beginning of cosmic time.” First starlight does not necessarily represent the moment the Big Bang ignited; in fact, it most likely occurred hundreds of millions of years before starlight.
Will the James Webb Space Telescope usher in a new era of astronomy? Sara Seager, a planetary scientist and astrophysicist at MIT says, “The Webb represents the culmination of decades, if not centuries, of astronomy. We’ve been waiting for this for a very long time.”
“We’re going right up to the edge of the observable universe with Webb,” says Caitlin Casey, assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin. “And yeah, we’re excited to see what’s there.”
Lest we forget, the Hubble brought us hauntingly beautiful images like those of Lagoon Nebula and Pillars of Creation. It educated us on cosmic activity like how stars and black holes. The Hubble’s most astronomical contribution was helping scientists determine the age of the universe.
The Webb hopes to push all of those boundaries. Size is a key difference. Hubble’s the size of a school bus, whereas Webb is roughly equal to the size of a tennis court. Not just the total size, Webb’s curved mirror is extravagant compared to its predecessor. Hubble’s mirror looks like a flat disc, while Webb’s is an intricate gold-hued interconnected mirrors, with a diameter three times the size at 21.3 feet.
“What Webb will do is take that field and go even further,” Casey explained. “So the tiny specks of light in the background of the Hubble Deep Field will brighten and become more detailed, we’ll be able to see spiral arms, we’ll be able to see structure, and then we’ll get more specks of light even further in the past. We’re seeing farther back in time with Webb.” Casey also noted that the Webb “has the capability to take us to 250 million years after the Big Bang.
The Webb separates itself from the Hubble in the types of light it collects. Hubble could only visible light, ultraviolet and little infrared, whereas the Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, which means it can see light in a longer wavelength to what the visible eye can see. Since Webb will allow astronomers to go further back in time with infrared, we may be on the verge of witnessing our universe’s conception.
“It feels like part of me is still stunned,” says Lisa Dang, a physics PhD student at McGill University who was one of the lucky few to get approved to use the Webb. “And the other part is having this imposter syndrome — like, these data better be really amazing.”
How long after the December launch with astronomers see results? Could be a matter of months before the scientific breakthroughs roll in.