James Webb space telescope: when did NASA Hubble successor launch, what is its mission, and where is it now?

Launched on Christmas Day 2021, the James Webb is aiming to answer some of humanity’s most fundamental questions about the universe

Nasa launched the James Webb Telescope on Christmas Day.

Costing an estimated £8bn and bringing together more than two decades of work, the space mission aims to answer some of the most fundamental questions we have about the universe.

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The craft reached its final position in deep space on 24 January and will start beaming images of distant stars and other far-off objects back to earth later this year.

So what exactly will the James Webb Telescope show us, whereabouts in space is it - and how will it replace the Hubble Telescope?

Here’s everything you need to know.

NASA said James Webb would be ‘a giant leap forward’ for humanity’s understanding of the cosmos (image: NASA)

What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

Developed over the past 20 years, the James Webb has been designed to build upon the groundbreaking discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The spacecraft is named after James E. Webb - the man who ran Nasa between February 1961 and October 1968 when the US space agency was preparing to land the first humans on the moon.

James E. Webb was one of Nasa’s first bosses and was instrumental in the Apollo lunar missions (image: NASA)

The James Webb Telescope will have a greater focus on the infrared wavelength than Hubble - a spectrum that’s important for peering through gas and dust clouds to see distant objects.

It boasts a mirror that is nearly 60 times bigger than previous infrared telescopes and promises to provide us with Hubble’s image resolution, albeit with an even greater sensitivity.

The US space agency described it as “a giant leap forward in our quest to understand humanity’s place in the great cosmic expanse”.

The James Webb Space Telescope might be able to see some of the first stars formed after the big bang (image: NASA)

The Planetary Society said the entire project, from construction through to the end of its active service, will cost around $10.8bn (£7.97bn).

What will the telescope be able to show us?

NASA said it hopes James Webb will provide a new view of the universe and will capture humanity’s imagination with major discoveries.

Essentially, it will be able to look further back in time than Hubble.

Because radiation, like light, takes time to travel across space to reach the earth, some of the most distant objects we can see are also some of the oldest objects in the universe.

The Hubble Space Telescope has captured some of the most iconic images of space, including this picture of spiral galaxy NGC 4414 (image: NASA/Getty Images)

While Hubble can make out the beginnings of some of the more modern galaxies, James Webb should be able to see the birth of the very first galaxies.

It might also be able to capture images of some of the universe’s first stars, which are believed to have been formed after the big bang almost 14 billion years ago.

The telescope will also be able to look deep into our own galaxy, with scientists hoping to catch a better glimpse of the black hole that sits at the centre of the Milky Way.

And we should also get a better view of planets, both within our solar system and beyond.

When did the James Webb Telescope launch?

The telescope blasted off from French Guiana on the northeastern coast of South America on Christmas Day 2021.

Since its launch, the James Webb Telescope has traveled a million miles to what is known as the second Lagrange point - one of five areas in deep space where the gravitational forces of the sun and the earth balance out to allow for a near-constant orbit.

This part of space is directly ‘behind’ earth as it is viewed from the Sun and is useful for these sorts of missions because it reduces the amount of fuel needed to keep a spacecraft in a stable orbit.

Now it has reached its final position, the telescope will undergo around six months of commissioning.

Thousands of parts and sequences will need to be tested before it can begin to take in any data.

Is this the end for Hubble?

Named after Edwin Hubble - an American astronomer whose work formed the basis of the big bang theory - the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990 to investigate everything from black holes to planets around other stars.

It does this by scanning across spectrums of electromagnetism, from visible light to infrared and ultraviolet.

Thanks to its instruments, Hubble has been able to peer inside cosmic clouds of gas and dust to reveal older parts of the universe, as well as providing us with our first glimpses of alien planets and galaxies far beyond our Milky Way.

The result has been some of the most iconic images we have of the universe, including the ‘Pillars of Creation’ shot which shows giant fingers of gas in a nursery of young stars.

An earth-based telescope cannot achieve the same results because of the level of interference from light and other signals on our planet.

Even after James Webb becomes fully operational, Hubble will be kept going due to its ultraviolet capabilities.

Indeed, NASA says Hubble is more scientifically productive today than it has been at any time in its past.

And given it sits just 340 miles above the earth, it could still be serviced and enhanced if its mission can keep receiving funding.

If you want to learn more about the Hubble telescope, long-running BBC science series Horizon recently re-broadcast a documentary filmed in 2020 celebrating 30 years of its achievements.

The film can be watched on iPlayer until 19 March.

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