The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope is now on its way to the earth-sun L2 Lagrangian point where it will begin taking images of the most distant regions of the known universe.  Many headlines claim that it will peer billions of years into the past to see the formation of the first galaxies after the big bang.  But what is it about this telescope that is so innovative, and what will it really discover?

Historical Background

In the late 1980s, engineers and astronomers began discussing a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.  Ideally, this successor should be considerably larger than Hubble which would give it increased light-gathering power and resolution – making images of distant objects both brighter and clearer than Hubble does.  By 1996, the consensus was that this new telescope’s cameras should operate primarily in the infrared part of the spectrum – wavelengths too long for human eyes to see directly.  This is different from Hubble which operates primarily in the visible range (it sees what we would see), although it can also detect ultraviolet and near-infrared.  This change meant that this new telescope would need to be designed somewhat differently than Hubble is, and it would require a different type of orbit as well.    

I recall discussing the plans of this amazing instrument in one of my graduate school classes in 1998. Back then, the telescope was called “The Next Generation Space Telescope.”  My fellow students and I were impressed with the proposed design and were anxious to see what wonderful images and interesting data this new marvel of engineering would collect.  But we lamented that we would have to wait until 2007 for the launch.  Yes, that was the originally scheduled launch date!  Little did we know that we would have to wait an additional 14 years.  But things often take longer than we plan, particularly in matters of brand-new technology and also when funding is in question.

By 2002, the designs were ready and NASA had selected the teams that would build the various components.  In September of that same year, the Next Generation Space Telescope was officially renamed “The James Webb Space Telescope” (JWST).[1]  James Webb (October 7, 1906 – March 27, 1992) was in charge of NASA from 1961 to 1968.  He successfully pushed for federal funding for the Apollo program.  Most of the individual pieces of the JWST were complete by 2013.  These pieces were combined and tested for the next three years.  The mirrors were similarly assembled by 2016.  In 2017, the science instruments were integrated into the telescope assembly.  These were then tested for mechanical integrity under vibration, and also tested in a low temperature vacuum chamber to simulate the operating environment as closely as possible.

A Next Generation Space Telescope

One significant difference between the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and the JWST is the size.  The Hubble telescope’s primary mirror is 2.4 meters (7 feet 10 inches) in diameter.  The entire HST fit nicely in the bay of the Space Shuttle.  However, the primary mirror assembly on the James Webb Space Telescope is 6.5 meters across (21-feet).  So, rather than using a single mirror, the designers used 18 smaller hexagonal mirrors, some of which can rotate away and fold in from each other to fit inside the rocket.  Once the telescope is released in space, they unfold and combine into a honeycomb pattern to form the complete 6.5-meter primary mirror.   

A comparison of the primary mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope to that of the James Webb Space Telescope. Courtesy NASA

The hexagonal mirrors are made of beryllium because it is lighter and stronger than aluminum, is less prone to vibration, and experiences less of a change in volume with changes in temperature.  The beryllium plates are coated with a layer of gold, only 700 atoms thick!  Gold is used because it reflects infrared rays better than silver or aluminum.  The hexagonal plates need to align with each other to a precision of about 1/10000th the diameter of a human hair.

Just to get a small glimpse of the insight and planning necessary for this telescope to work properly, consider the expansion of material with temperature.  Most substances, like aluminum, expand slightly when heated.  The increase in temperature causes the average separation between the atoms to increase.  Conversely, substances shrink slightly as they cool.  Beryllium does this too, although to a lesser extent than aluminum.  And since the JWST is designed to work in the extremely cold environment of space, its designers had to compensate for the slight contraction of the metal.  Thus, the hexagonal mirrors were built on earth slightly too large, so that when they contract in the cold of space, they will be just the right size. 

The fully-assembled primary mirror of the JWST at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Courtesy NASA

The other major differences from Hubble are due to the fact that the JWST is designed to image infrared wavelengths of light.  Any object at room temperature gives off some infrared emissions, and warmer objects give off more.  Perhaps you have seen an image of people from an infrared camera and they look like they are glowing.  Well, they are – in infrared.  Therefore, the JWST needs to operate at a very cold temperature, otherwise its infrared cameras would detect their own heat and electron noise.  Three of the four instruments aboard the JWST operate best at a temperature of 37 Kelvins (negative 393° Fahrenheit).  

In order to achieve that low temperature, special features are required.  First, the JWST has a sunshield to reflect away incoming solar energy that would otherwise heat up the telescope.  The shield has five layers that will result in a temperature difference of 600° Fahrenheit between the two sides of the spacecraft.  This sunshield is 69.5 feet in length, and 46.5 feet wide – about the size of a tennis court.  Since that won’t fit inside any existing rocket, the sunshield is designed to fold up for launch, and then deploy in space.  The side of the spacecraft that is opposite the sun will passively drop to the temperatures required for the three instruments to work properly.

NASA animation of the deployment of the JWST

The three instruments that operate at 37 Kelvins are designed to detect wavelengths between 0.6 and 5 microns, corresponding to near-infrared and some visible light on the red end of the spectrum.  But the fourth instrument is designed to detect mid-infrared with wavelengths between 5 and 28 microns.  This requires even colder temperatures and works best at temperatures below 7 Kelvins (negative 447° Fahrenheit).  This requires an active cooling system.  So, the JWST is equipped with a cryocooler.  Since the cryocooler has moving parts, it is specially designed to minimize vibration. 

An Unusual Orbit

The Hubble Space Telescope is in low earth orbit.  That is, it orbits approximately 340 miles above the surface of the earth.  That’s just a bit higher than the International Space Station.  This makes the HST easily accessible.  Several Space Shuttle missions were sent to service the HST and replace components.  But since the James Webb Space Telescope works primarily in the infrared part of the spectrum, if it were in low earth orbit the heat radiating from the earth would interfere with its operation.  Yet, if the JWST were in deep space, it would require great power to send signals detectable by earth instruments.  Therefore, the JWST is being inserted into an orbit around the earth-sun L2 Lagrange point.  This requires some explanation.

Joseph-Loius Lagrange was an 18th century astronomer and mathematician.  One of his significant contributions involved the “three-body problem.”[2]  This is the question of what happens when a third object is added to a system of two orbiting bodies, like the earth and the sun.  Lagrange discovered that there are five locations where the gravity of the sun and the earth balance in such a way that a third object placed in one of those locations would orbit the sun at exactly the same rate as earth.  These locations became known as Lagrangian points.

Three of the Lagrangian points are along the straight line that contains the earth and sun.  The first (named L1) is in between the earth and sun, but much closer to earth.  The second (L2) lies on the opposite side of earth as the sun, about 1 million miles away.  The third (L3) is on the opposite side of the sun as earth, and about the same distance from the sun (93 million miles).  L4 lies in earth’s orbit, but 60° ahead of earth, forming an equilateral triangle with the earth and sun.  L5 also lies in earth’s orbit, but trails earth by 60° and also forms an equilateral triangle with the earth and sun.  Any object placed in one of these positions and given the right velocity will orbit the sun in exactly one year, just as earth does, thereby maintaining its relative position with respect to the earth and sun.[3]

The Lagrangian Points. Courtesy NASA / WMAP Science Team

The JWST will orbit in a halo just around L2 which lies at a distance of about a million miles from earth.  That may seem like a large distance, but it is small by cosmic standards and makes radio communication straightforward.  This places the telescope far from earth’s heat, and with the sunshield blocking the earth anyway.  And its orbit ensures that it is never in the earth’s shadow or the moon’s shadow, so that the solar panels always receive power.  The disadvantage of this orbit is that the JWST will not be serviceable.  So, if something goes wrong, there will be no way to repair it. 

The JWST can see only half of the sky at any given time; the other half is blocked by the sunshield.  But since the spacecraft orbits the sun once per year (as the earth does) and always with its sunshield facing the sun, over the course of a year it will be able to see the entire sky.  The half of the sky that is visible at any given time is roughly the same sky you see at midnight.[4]

The Launch and Timeline

After a frustrating series of delays, the James Webb Space Telescope was launched aboard an Ariane 5 rocket on Christmas Day, 2021.  The launch site in French Guiana is near the equator, which takes advantage of earth’s rotation, thereby reducing fuel requirements.  The telescope performed a midcourse correction burn on the same day, and then again on the 27th, sending it in the right direction to reach L2.  By January 4, 2022, the sunshield had fully deployed and was brought into proper tension.  On January 8, 2022, the main mirror fully deployed on schedule.  Over the next four months the 18 hexagonal mirrors will come into alignment.   Next week, an additional midcourse correction burn is scheduled to place the JWST into orbit around L2.  If all goes according to plan, we should see the first fully-calibrated images from JWST in July, 2022.  The JWST is fully funded for a five-year mission, but NASA hopes to extend this to 10 years, and perhaps more.

The Ariane 5 rocket containing the JWST just before launch.
The JWST as seen from the Ariane 5 rocket shortly after its release.

Predictions

What kind of discoveries should we expect?  Among other things, the JWST is optimized to peer as far into space as is possible with current technology.  This is why it is tuned to detect infrared wavelengths.  Galaxies at great distances from us are redshifted.  That means the wavelengths of their light have been shifted to longer wavelengths.  These are exactly the wavelengths that the JWST is designed to detect.  And since it has greater light-gathering power and resolution than Hubble, it can detect galaxies at greater distances.  What we expect to find at such distances depends strongly on our worldview, as well as our ideas about the structure of the cosmos.

First, will the JWST really be looking “back in time?”  In the standard secular view, the light takes time to get from a distant location to us, and therefore what we see today in space actually happened a long time ago.  But since the speed of light in only one direction (such as the star to the earth) cannot be objectively measured, such a position is not provable.[5]  It is instead stipulated.  This is called the Einstein synchrony convention (ESC).  Alternatively, we are free to stipulate that the light takes no time at all to reach us even from the most distant galaxy.  This is the anisotropic synchrony convention (ASC).  It really depends on how we choose to define “now” at great distances from us.  So, are we seeing the universe as it is right now (ASC), or as it was in the past (ESC)?  According to Einstein, the answer is “yes.”  Either option is acceptable.  I know that is counter-intuitive.  But it is the result of a great number of experimental discoveries and rational deduction.  We have a series of articles on this issue.  I will simply point out that the Bible apparently uses the ASC system, in which case we are seeing the universe in real time – by that same convention.

Secular astronomers use primarily the ESC system, in which case the light from very distant galaxies left billions of years ago and is only now reaching earth.  In that system, the most distant galaxies we see are also the youngest.  Therefore, secular astronomers expect that the JWST will show galaxies in the earliest stages of formation.  They expect to see the earliest stars in the process of formation and in the process of assembling into galaxies.[6]

They further expect that these most distant stars will be Population III stars: a (currently) hypothetical star that has exactly zero elements heavier than lithium.  So far, all known stars contain at least some of the heavier elements.  But since the big bang cannot produce such elements even in principle, secular scientists believe that such elements should be completely absent in the first generation of stars.[7]  The JWST is equipped with a spectroscope that can analyze the “atomic fingerprint” of incoming light, and discover the composition of the source. 

What do creationists expect to find?  I cannot speak for all creation scientists.  But I personally expect that the JWST will find quite a different situation.  Rather than galaxies just starting to form, I expect to see fully-formed (fully-designed) galaxies at unprecedented distances.  This will force secular astronomers to adjust their estimates of when the earliest galaxies formed, pushing them much closer to the supposed big bang.  We might see headlines like “Webb discovers that galaxies formed much earlier than previously thought.”

Furthermore, I expect the signal of some heavy elements in these galaxies.  That is, I don’t expect to see evidence of genuine Population III stars – those with no heavy elements at all.  Since I reject the big bang as the cause of the three lightest elements, I have no reason to believe that the universe was not created with some heavy elements already in it.  So, I expect lots of Population II stars with low quantities of heavy elements, but not zero.  Note that some secularists might try to “move the goalpost” by redefining Population III stars as having a very low fraction of heavy elements.  But I predict it won’t be zero as required by the big bang model.

The James Webb Space Telescope is also equipped for direct imaging of some extrasolar planets within our galaxy.  These are planets that orbit a star other than the sun.  We know of several thousand exoplanets, but only a handful have been directly imaged.  I am very excited about the possibility of seeing planets that have never before been seen by anyone other than God.  The JWST will also attempt to analyze the spectral features (the “atomic fingerprint”) of these planets.  This will tell us what these planets are made of. 

I predict that many of these planets will challenge secular theories of planet formation and deep time.  For example, I expect some planets will not orbit in the rotation plane of their star.  Yet, standard secular formation scenarios require a close alignment due to conservation of angular momentum.  We may find planets orbiting binary stars in a location where such a planet is not expected to form.  The JWST might detect some planets that orbit their star backwards – opposite the star’s rotation.  The composition of some of these exoplanets might be different from planets in our solar system, in a way that is not consistent with the secular model.  I expect evidence of youth that challenges deep time.  For example, we may see evidence of strong magnetic fields in some of these systems.  Yet, planetary magnetic fields decay over time and do not last billions of years. 

Perhaps the most exciting prospect for me is the discovery of new phenomena that no one predicted.  God is wonderfully creative and I am excited to see what secrets He has placed in the distant universe.  Science isn’t just a tool to refute evolution and secularism.  It is the study of God’s creation and the way in which He controls it.  The proper response to scientific discovery is always to worship the Lord.


[1] Recently, some people petitioned NASA to change the name again since Webb apparently opposed sexual perversion such as acts of homosexuality and lesbianism.  In his day, government workers were required to have good moral conduct.  (How the times have changed!)  Fortunately, NASA has rejected their petition.

[2] In the late 17th century, Isaac Newton had proved mathematically that two masses, if given sufficient kinetic energy, will orbit around their common center of mass.  When one object is much more massive than the other, the smaller mass does most of the moving; this is why the earth orbits the sun.  Newton was able to compute the exact shape of the orbit, and the exact speed of the orbiter along its path.  But what happens when a third, much less massive object is introduced into the system?  No one had been able to compute the exact path it would take.

[3] The L4 and L5 Lagrangian points are stable.  That means that any object in one of those locations, if given a small nudge away from the Lagrangian point, will eventually move back toward the point.  It’s a bit like a Weeble or a punching balloon that is weighted so that when you push down on it, it comes back up to its original position.  L1, L2, and L3 are not fully stable.  Therefore, spacecraft in such locations require thrusters to compensate for any unexpected nudge.

[4] This approximation is best for lower latitudes – locations near earth’s equator.

[5] Only the round-trip speed of light can be objectively measured without circular assumptions.  That is, the time it takes light to go from A to B and back to A in vacuum can be objectively measured, and the total distance divided by the total time is always exactly c (186,282.397 miles per second).

[6] Individual stars will not be easily visible at such distances.  But astronomers will look for indirect signs of star formation.

[7] In the standard model, the heavier elements are supposed to form in the most massive stars.  These heavier elements are dispersed into space when the star explodes, and then contaminate the next generation of stars.