Article by Nick Zotalis
The testing of the James Webb Telescope has been completed, marking a significant step forward in the search for extraterrestrial life. It is considered a spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, and is scheduled to be launched sometime in 2019. Among many other functions, the telescope will be a formidable tool in searching for life elsewhere in the universe.
The orbit of the telescope will be significantly more sophisticated than that of Hubble. Hubble directly orbits the earth at a distance of 570 km (354 miles). Despite the incredible data that Hubble has provided, its view can still be obscured by the light from the sun.
James Webb will be located at a point in space called the second Lagrange Point (L2). This is 1.5 million km (930,000 miles) away from Earth. It will actually be in orbit around the sun, but due to its unique position in space will always be in line with the Earth. This, plus a powerful sunshield, will virtually eliminate any possible interference from the sun or other sources.
This shielding is even more important because the telescope will work by detecting infrared light, light which is too low-frequency to be detected by human eyes. Because infrared waves travel farther than visible light, and due to the very sophisticated systems on board, James Webb will be able to see farther and clearer than any telescope that has come before it.
There are roughly 3,500 discovered bodies known as exoplanets. These are planets similar to those in our solar system which orbit other stars. These planets are located very far away from earth, and their tiny size compared to their stars makes it very difficult to gain information about them. Only 19 of these exoplanets have been directly imaged. Even among these, our information is very limited. For the vast majority of exoplanets, our knowledge is based on observing their effects on other bodies.
Earlier this year, the discovery of the TRAPPIST system, home to seven potential Earth-like planets, caused quite a stir among extraterrestrial-seekers. Since our only frame of reference to search for life is our own, it is logical to look on planets that are similar to Earth. The James Webb Telescope will up the game and image many exoplanets directly, revealing information about their temperature, atmospheric composition, and many other important pieces of information. Discovering a planet identical to Earth would lead us to conclude that there is almost certainly life there. Until its launch, everyone will be eagerly awaiting the possible discoveries by the next-generation telescope.
Feature Image Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center