NASA Is Launching A New Telescope That Could Offer Some Cosmic Eye Candy


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Two views of the Eagle Nebula’s «Pillars of Creation,» both captured by Hubble. The left shows the pillars in visible light; the right image was taken in infrared light.

NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team


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NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team

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Hubble captured these two views of the same area in the star-forming nebula NGC 2174. The left is a visible-light image, and the right is an image made with its infrared camera.

NASA and ESA


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NASA and ESA


Science
The Hubble Space Telescope Still Works Great — Except When It Doesn’t

Waiting for infrared Webb

While Hubble has gazed out at stars and galaxies, astronomers and engineers have been hard at work on the James Webb Space Telescope, which is named after a former NASA administrator. Its development has gone on far longer—and has been far costlier—than anyone anticipated.

This telescope’s massive mirror is divided into segments, so that it and a 5-layer, tennis court-sized sunshield can fold up inside a rocket and later unfurl. All of its technologies have to operate without a hitch, because unlike with Hubble, there’s no way to send up a repair crew.

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Technicians view the primary mirror for the James Webb Space Telescope. The thin gold coating on its mirror segments improves the reflection of infrared light.

NASA Goddard


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NASA Goddard


Joe’s Big Idea
Some Assembly Required: New Space Telescope Will Take Shape After Launch

Part science, part artistry

Deciding how to assign colors that our eyes can see to the various wavelengths of infrared light, she says, involves a little bit of artistic license.

But then, there’s always been a certain amount of artistry in Hubble images, too. Hubble’s cameras send back black and white images. Vivid colors are added later—sometimes to mimic what our eyes can see, and sometimes to highlight key scientific features like the presence of oxygen or other elements.

And even though Hubble looks at the visible light spectrum, that doesn’t mean its view equals what people would see. If you could ride in a spaceship out to a nebula, a cloud of dust and gas, and then look out the window, it wouldn’t look like a glorious Hubble image.

«You would see the slightest faint haze in the sky,» says Hurt. «It would be very dark. Because the total amount of light that these nebulas emit isn’t very much, and our eyes are very small.»

He notes that Spitzer, another infrared space telescope that operated for about 17 years before shutting down in 2020, produced lots of stunning eye candy, though it was smaller and less powerful than James Webb will be. Spitzer was able to get images of the very center of the Milky Way galaxy, which is surrounded by particles of dust that prevent the passage of visible light.

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This infrared image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows the core of our Milky Way galaxy. In visible-light pictures, this region cannot be seen at all because dust blocks the view.

Spitzer Space Telescope/NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (Spitzer Science Center/Caltech)


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Spitzer Space Telescope/NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (Spitzer Science Center/Caltech)


Science
Massive U.S. Machines That Hunt For Ripples In Space-Time Just Got An Upgrade

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  • james webb
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  • infrared light
  • hubble images
  • hubble
  • James Webb Space Telescope
  • Spitzer
  • NASA

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