The James Webb Space Telescope

Last week I was on holiday in Southern California. Lucky me.

Lucky me indeed. During my visit I had – by extreme good fortune – the opportunity to meet with Jon Arenberg – former engineering director of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

And by even more extreme good fortune I had the opportunity to speak with him while overlooking the JWST itself – held upright in a clean room at the Northrop Grumman campus in Redondo Beach, California.

[Sadly, photography was not allowed, so I will have to paint you a picture in words and use some stock images.]


In case you don’t know, the JWST will be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and has been designed to exceed the operational performance of the HST in two key areas.

  • Firstly, it is designed to gather more light than the HST. This will allow the JWST to see very faint objects.
  • Secondly, it is designed to work better with infrared light than the HST. This will allow the JWST to see objects whose light has been extremely red-shifted from the visible.

A full-size model of the JWST is shown below and it is clear that the design is extraordinary, and at first sight, rather odd-looking. But the structure – and much else besides – is driven by these two requirements.

JWST and people

Requirement#1: Gather more light.

To gather more light, the main light-gathering mirror in the JWST is 6.5 metres across rather than just 2.5 metres in the HST. That means it gathers around 7 times more light than the HST and so can see fainter objects and produce sharper images.


Image courtesy of Wikipedia

But in order to launch a mirror this size from Earth on a rocket, it is necessary to use a  mirror which can be folded for launch. This is why the mirror is made in hexagonal segments.

To cope with the alignment requirements of a folding mirror, the mirror segments have actuators to enable fine-tuning of the shape of the mirror.

To reduce the weight of such a large mirror it had to be made of beryllium – a highly toxic metal which is difficult to machine. It is however 30% less dense than aluminium and also has a much lower coefficient of thermal expansion.

The ‘deployment’ or ‘unfolding’ sequence of the JWST is shown below.

Requirement#2: Improved imaging of infrared light.

The wavelength of visible light varies from roughly 0.000 4 mm for light which elicits the sensation we call violet, to 0.000 7 mm for light which elicits the sensation we call red.

Light with a wavelength longer than 0.000 7 mm does not elicit any visible sensation in humans and is called ‘infrared’ light.

Imaging so-called ‘near’ infrared light (with wavelengths from 0.000 7 mm to 0.005 mm) is relatively easy.

Hubble can ‘see’ at wavelengths as long as 0.002 5 mm. To achieve this, the detector in HST was cooled. But to work at longer wavelengths the entire telescope needs to be cold.

This is because every object emits infrared light and the amount of infrared light it emits is related to its temperature. So a warm telescope ‘glows’ and offers no chance to image dim infrared light from the edge of the universe!

The JWST is designed ‘see’ at wavelengths as long as 0.029 mm – 10 times longer wavelengths than the HST – and that means that typically the telescope needs to be on the order of 10 times colder.

To cool the entire telescope requires a breathtaking – but logical – design. There were two parts to the solution.

  • The first part involved the design of the satellite itself.
  • The second part involved the positioning the satellite.

Cooling the telescope part#1: design

The telescope and detectors were separated from the rest of the satellite that contains elements such as the thrusters, cryo-coolers, data transmission equipment and solar cells. These parts need to be warm to operate correctly.

The telescope is separated from the ‘operational’ part of the satellite with a sun-shield roughly the size of tennis court. When shielded from the Sun, the telescope is exposed to the chilly universe, and cooled gas from the cryo-coolers cools some of the detectors to just a few degrees above absolute zero.

Cooling the telescope part#2: location

The HST is only 300 miles or so from Earth, and orbits every 97 minutes. It travels in-to and out-of full sunshine on each orbit. This type of orbit is not compatible with keeping a gigantic telescope cold.

So the second part of the cooling strategy is to position the JWST approximately 1 million miles from Earth at a location known as the second Lagrange point L2.

At L2 the gravitational attraction of the Sun is approximately 30 times greater than the gravitational attraction of the Earth and Moon.

At L2 the satellite orbits the Sun in a period of one year – and so stays in the same position relative to the Earth.

  • The advantage of orbiting at L2 is that the satellite can maintain the same orientation with respect to the Sun for long periods. And so the sun-shade can shield the telescope very effectively, allowing it to stay cool.
  • The disadvantage of orbiting at L2 is that it is beyond the orbit of the moon and no manned space-craft has ever travelled so far from Earth. So once launched, there is absolutely no possibility of a rescue mission.

The most expensive object on Earth?

I love the concept of the JWST. At an estimated cost of $8 billion, if this is not the most expensive single object on Earth, then I would be interested to know what is.

But it has not been created to make money or as an act of aggression.

Instead, it has been created to answer the simple question

I wonder what we would see if we looked into deep space at infrared wavelengths.”. 

Ultimately, we just don’t know until we look.

In a year or two, engineers will place the JWST on top of an Ariane rocket and fire it into space. And the most expensive object on Earth will then – hopefully – become the most expensive object in space.

Personally I find the mere existence of such an enterprise a bastion of hope in a world full of worry.


Many thanks to Jon Arenberg  and Stephanie Sandor-Leahy for the opportunity to see this apogee of science and engineering.


Breathtaking photographs are available in galleries linked to from this page


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