James Webb Space Telescope: launch date and time, will it replace Nasa’s Hubble, and how much does it cost?

NASA said the James Webb would be a ‘giant leap forward’ in humanity’s understanding of the universe

Since 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has provided many of the most iconic images of deep space.

From the ‘Pillars of Creation’ image showing giant fingers of gas in a nursery of young stars, to our first high-definition glimpses into other galaxies, the telescope has greatly advanced humanity’s understanding of the cosmos.

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But Hubble is set to be succeeded by a brand new mission - NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope - which is set to blast off at Christmas.

So what will James Webb be able to show us - and when will it launch?

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 it 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 Space 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 will James Webb launch?

The telescope is set to blast off into space from French Guiana on the northeastern coast of South America on Christmas Day 2021.

Its launch is expected to take place between 12:20pm and 12:52pm UK time.

The rocket carrying the telescope - the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket - was originally due to launch on 18 December but this was delayed owing to adverse weather conditions.

Once it has blasted off, James Webb will travel one million miles over the next month to reach a point known as the second Lagrange point - one of five areas in 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 sought about by space agencies for these sorts of missions because it reduces the amount of fuel needed by a spacecraft to remain in orbit.

Once it reaches its orbit, the telescope will undergo six months of commissioning in space.

Thousands of parts and sequences will 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 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.

These allow it to peer inside cosmic clouds of gas and dust to reveal stars, planets and even other galaxies.

Even after James Webb becomes fully operational, Hubble will be kept going for a few years yet due to its ultraviolet capabilities.

Indeed, NASA said 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.

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