James Webb telescope to undergo testing
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The successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is set to be placed inside a huge thermal vacuum chamber.

Constructed thanks to a major international collaboration between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency, the James Webb Space Telescope will provide unprecedented resolution and sensitivity when it finally launches sometime in 2018.

Its primary goals will be to image some of the first stars and galaxies to have formed after the Big Bang, to study the formation and evolution of galaxies, to better understand the formation of stars and planets and to study the origins of life in the universe.

It should even be able to provide clearer direct imaging of planets in orbit around distant stars.

For now however, the telescope, which is still under construction, will have to endure 90 days inside the same vacuum chamber NASA used to test the Apollo vehicles that took mankind to the Moon.

Beginning either in April or May, this testing phase will help to ensure that the telescope's mirrors and instruments will all work correctly when it is finally deployed in the cold depths of space.

"It's amazing how fast everything is going at this point," said programme director Eric Smith.

"But I keep telling people this is the part where you're going to keep finding problems because even though you've tested things all the way up, when you finally put it together some of those things behave just a little bit differently to how you were expecting."

"It's exciting but, boy, it's moving fast.