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The Hubble's Successor Will Make Space Much, Much Clearer

Hubble, We Hardly Knew Ya’bble

CK Kimball
September 22 2021

After multiple delays, cost overruns, and a major redesign in 2007, NASA has announced the launch date of December 18th, 2021 for the highly anticipated James T. Webb space telescope. Development for the Hubble Space Telescope successor, named for James T. Webb the NASA administrator instrumental in the Apollo program, actually began in 1996 under the prime contractor Northrop Grumman and was initially planned for 2007. But fourteen years later and coming just under 10 billion dollars, astronomy as we know it is about to get a whole lot clearer. 

Webb Telescope: Northrop Grumman

The Hubble Space Telescope, also known as “HST” or simply “Hubble”, was launched into low Earth Orbit (LEO) in 1990 and has become a cornerstone in the public relations of astronomy. Featuring a 7 ft 10 in mirror (and in telescoping, it’s all about the mirror size) and instruments to observe in the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum (the order of wavelengths from radio to gamma, a rainbow of radiation), Hubble is responsible for some the most high-resolution photos of deep space ever seen. A famous example being the Pillars of Creation taken in 1995, an incredible image of stars forming within the Eagle Nebula 6500 to 7000 light-years from Earth.
 
Pillars of creation: Hubble 

However, in the thirty years since Hubble’s launch, ground-based astronomy has caught up to this space-scope thanks to technological advancements in the field picking up in the late ‘90s. Still, the Hubble is involved with current projects, its major advantage being its location in space outside of Earth’s warping atmosphere.

Telescope Distance Comparison: NASA 

Which is part of the importance of the James T. Webb space telescope. While the Hubble Space Telescope features a 7 ft 10 in mirror, the James T. Webb is muscling in a mirror of 21.7 feet in diameter. That’s six times the collection power of the Hubble. Over the decades, the Hubble has enjoyed a leisurely orbit 340 mi above Earth's surface. But the James T. Webb Telescope is adventuring out near the Earth–Sun L2 (Lagrange point), approximately 930,000 mi beyond Earth's orbit (for reference, Earth’s moon is a modest 250,000 mi from the planet). The rule of thumb is the further from Earth’s visually warping atmosphere, the better the images.

JWTS will also be “seeing with new eyes” through infrared sensors, detecting through previously obscuring dust to neighboring galaxies and structures in detail NEVER seen before. Through the JWTS, the nature of the hyped “Planet X” or “Planet Nine” can be confirmed, the temperature and composition of further exoplanets can be determined, and the very study of cosmology revolutionized through a greater understanding of the large scale structure of the Universe.

Infrared Comparison: Arizona State
Infrared vs Visible Webb vs Hubble: NASA

So, what does the eventual James T. Webb Telescope launch mean for the Hubble Telescope? While HST is still a beloved member of space advocacy, the costs of repair, the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, and the ongoing budgetary issues mean what happens to Hubble is pretty much… unknown. Eventually, HST’s orbital decay (the consistent slowdown of an object in orbit or orbit drag) will lower Hubble until it reaches Earth’s atmosphere, at which point, an uncontrolled reentry is predicted between 2028 and 2040. SpaceX and other private space companies have considered and offered to retrieve or repair HST, but for the most part, Hubble is orbiting to retirement.

Regardless, if all goes to plan in December, humans may have a whole new idea of the universe just in time for the future New Year.

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