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Search for inhabitable planets comes to Royal Society science exhibition

Dr Stephen Wilkins and an infrared camera

UK scientists behind the James Webb Space Telescope will reveal some its secrets to the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition 2018 between 2-8 July.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the $9 billion successor to Hubble, set to launch in 2021. The Telescope will be blasted 1.5 million kilometres into space, more than four times further than the moon, to become the largest and most advanced telescope ever launched. And a team of UK scientists will be among the first to take observations. 

The Webb Telescope has a mirror more than five times larger than Hubble and both its mirror and suite of sensitive cameras are optimised to study the Universe in the infrared. By detecting infrared light, the Webb Telescope will help astronomers understand how planets, stars, and galaxies form and evolve, and may even provide the first evidence for habitable planets outside the solar system.

At the Royal Society event, the UK team will demonstrate the infrared technology. Visitors can get to grips with the Telescope’s cutting-edge hardware and see how it will provide a giant leap in our understanding of the Universe.

Visitors will be able to:
  • see themselves in infrared light
  • hunt for infrared sources hidden around the exhibit, using a mobile camera;
  • and explore the spacecraft and British-led instrument, with an interactive model. 

Dr Stephen Wilkins, an astrophysicist from the University of Sussex, and his UK colleagues will be among the first to make observations.

He comments: “The Webb Telescope will be the largest ever launched into space. Its exquisite images will revolutionise our understanding of the Universe – from our own solar system, to nearby planets with atmospheres capable of supporting life, all the way to the very first galaxies formed after the Big Bang. Could Webb discover Earth 2.0? Possibly.

“With its infrared cameras, the Telescope will allow us to peer through space dust to find new discoveries about parts of space not visible to the human eye, or to current telescopes. 

“When we observe distant objects we are seeing them as they appeared in the past. Look far enough away and we can observe the first generation of galaxies to form in the Universe. The James Webb Space Telescope will allow us to look back in time to some of the earliest objects in the Universe.

“I really hope that the public will feel proud of the prominent role the UK has played in its construction. And UK scientists will be amongst the first to take and analyse observations.

"What are the atmospheres like on other planets? When did the first galaxies form? These are some of the questions that the Webb Telescope will help us answer.”

Webb is planned to launch in 2021. Scientists and engineers, some of whom have spent more than 20 years on the project, will then nervously wait as the Telescope makes its epic journey to L2. During this time, critical elements like the sunshield and primary mirror will deploy and the Telescope will cool down. 

The UK was heavily involved in Webb’s mid-infrared instrument (also known as MIRI). MIRI was developed as an equal partnership between Europe and USA. 

The Telescope was designed and developed by a consortium of more than 30 European institutes in 10 countries, in collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the USA, and with support by the European Space Agency (ESA). Led for Europe by Prof Gillian Wright (Science and Technology’s Facilities Council’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh) and for the USA by Prof George Rieke (University of Arizona).

The James Webb Space Telescope exhibit is presented by: University of Sussex, The United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Centre, University of Edinburgh, University College London, European Space Agency, University of Leicester, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge,Durham University and Queen's University Belfast.

More about the James Webb Space Telescope
  • UK-based scientists will be heavily involved in the scientific exploitation, and several UK based scientists will be involved in analysing the first scientific images obtained by the Telescope.
  • The Telescope must be kept cool and so will be positioned 1.5m kilometres from the Earth and about four times further than the Moon. In this location the Telescope can use a single sunshield to block light from both the Earth and Sun.
  • After launch, it will take around 30 days to reach this location, known as the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point.
  • The Telescope will use a mirror that is five times the size of Hubble’s. 
  • The mirror is coated in gold as it reflects infrared light better than aluminium.
  • To make this mirror, 18 individual hexagonal mirror segments will be arranged in a honeycomb pattern. They will unfold once the Telescope is in position. 
  • As well as looking at the furthest objects in space, it will be able to probe through the dust enshrouding young stars, study cool objects like planets and moons, and examine the atmospheres of planets outside our own solar system
  • The Telescope is a partnership between the US National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency.
  • The Telescope is named after James Webb, the second administrator of NASA. 

By: Anna Ford
Last updated: Thursday, 12 July 2018