James Webb Space Telescope Poised to Change our Understanding of Space

NASA engineer Ernie Wright looks at The James Webb Space Telescope’s primary mirror segments – David Higginbotham, NASA via Wikimedia Commons

On Christmas morning at the edge of a tropical rainforest in Kourou, French Guiana, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), folded into the back of an Ariane 5 rocket, successfully launched. A partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, the telescope has been 25 years in the making and is poised to change our understanding of space.

 “The promise of Webb is not what we know we will discover; it’s what we don’t yet understand or can’t yet fathom about our universe,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a December 25, 2021 NASA press release.

JWST, also known as Webb, is an orbiting infrared observatory that will extend the discoveries made by the Hubble Space Telescope. According to the Space Telescope Science Institute, JWST “will offer scientists the opportunity to observe galaxy evolution, the formation of stars and planets, exoplanetary systems, and our own solar system, in ways never before possible.”

The telescope is designed with a mirror (made up of 18 individual hexagon shaped segments) that is 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) in diameter and a tennis-court sized sunshield, making it the largest space observatory ever launched. Due to its size, both the mirror and sunshield had to be folded for launch and then, once the telescope was in space, had to undergo a perilous unfolding process.

The good news is that the mirrors successfully unfolded about two weeks into the mission and, about a month after launch, JWST completed its nearly million-mile journey to the Sun-Earth Lagrange point (LS2), an area of gravitational balance between the earth and the sun where the telescope will orbit. JWST will be positioned so that the sun, Earth, and moon stay to one side, and the telescope’s sunshield will act like an umbrella providing shade for the Webb’s mirrors and protecting instruments from the sun’s heat. Over the next several months, the JWST mission team of scientists and engineers will engage in a process of aligning the telescope’s mirrors so that images can be captured. The first images from JWST are expected this summer.

According to NASA, several new innovations contributed to the development of JWST. Microshutters, tiny windows measuring 100 by 200 microns (approximately the size of a bundle of a few human hairs), were designed to work with a near infrared spectrograph to record the spectra of light from distant objects. The backplane was designed to hold and support the telescope’s mirrors, which may sound simple, but the backplane also had to withstand temperatures of less than negative 400 degrees F. According to NASA, the “backplane was engineered to be steady down to 32 nanometers, which is 1/10,000 the diameter of a human hair.”

Wavefront sensing and control was developed to control and correct any errors with the JWST’s 18 mirrors, making sure they can work together as one single unit. The telescope’s sunshield consists of five razor thin membrane layers made of Kapton, a high-performance plastic that was then coated with a reflective metal that will help reflect the sun’s heat. 

According to alumnus David Sternberg ’08, the physics he learned at Haverford built the foundation for his career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The innovations and technology of Webb are sophisticated and impressive. But at the essence of Webb is foundational science and engineering, much like what is taught in science classes at Haverford. According to alumnus David Sternberg ’08, the physics he learned at Haverford built the foundation for his career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Dr. Sternberg is a Guidance and Control Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; he has worked on the Lunar Flashlight, MarCO, and the Psyche missions. In 2018, Dr. Sternberg was Haverford’s William Edward Gwinn ’86 Memorial Lecturer. While he has not directly worked on the JWST mission, his career path is a concrete example of how science learned at Haverford creates a foundation for careers in STEM and the ability to work at agencies like NASA.  

“Haverford prepared me well for starting MIT, which in turn prepared me for JPL. Haverford’s science courses taught me to be investigative, persistent, diligent, and mindful of human error,” Dr. Sternberg said. “The ability not only to understand a concept but to see the concept ‘come alive’ through experimentation helped me learn and develop my own intuitions about how the world works.”

NASA engineers celebrate an accomplished step of the launch process – via Wikimedia Commons

In this era of instant gratification, the 25 years it has taken to build and launch JWST is a testament to the idea of perseverance. It is a reminder to us all that it is small steps that lead to big accomplishments.  

“The launch of any spacecraft is a momentous occasion, especially for a spacecraft as large and complex as JWST,” Dr. Sternberg said. “JWST is the product of countless hours of work by an amazing team from around the world. It’s always exciting to read current events, think about implications of the current spacecraft state or of data products that have been sent back, and envision the years of effort coming to fruition in the form of in-flight operations.”

Sources Used: 

Webb Space Telescope


NASA’s Webb Telescope Launches to See First Galaxies, Distant Worlds


Space Telescope Science Institute – JWST for Scientists 


Web Innovations


Webb Innovations Microshutters


Webb Innovations Backplane


Webb Innovations Wavefront Sensing and Control


Webb Innovations – Sunshield Coating


Space.com – The Alignment of NASA’s James Webb Telescope has Begun


NASA’s Webb Telescope Reaches Major Milestone as Mirror Unfolds