NASA's latest space telescope on track for 2018 launch

Wednesday - 4/18/2012, 10:58am EDT

John Mather, senior project scientist, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope project

Download mp3

Although NASA may still be figuring out its human flight program of the future, its science mission hasn't wavered.

A signature science program under development is the James Webb Space Telescope. The program had faced budget and schedule overruns, but the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is back on track to eventually look at the edge of the universe.

"We've been able to hold to our schedule for a whole year now, meeting all our monthly milestones," said John Mather, senior project scientist for the project.

A September 2009 artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope (NASA photo)

Mather spoke with the Federal Drive's Tom Temin at the FedSMC conference in Cambridge, Md.

The JWSB is set to launch in 2018, following extensive replanning and rebudgeting exercises that were successfully completed and approved in the congressional budget for this year. NASA is currently building the telescope and expects delivery of all of the scientific instruments this year.

"We're far along in the construction," Mather said. "All 18 of the beryllium mirror segments have been polished and all figured to the right shape, all coated and ready to go."

Once construction of the telescope is finished, NASA will begin testing it.

"Most of our challenges are in the mechanical structures, making sure that they survived a launch," Mather said. "It's extremely hazardous to go into space on top of an extreme vibration and sound level. Of course, when we get there, the telescope will cool down to extremely low temperatures so it can do its job of observing infrared wavelengths from deep space."

Despite being 22-years-old, the Hubble telescope is still doing its job of exploring space. According to Mather, Hubble recently went through an upgrade and is now functioning better than ever.

"Hubble was able to reach almost to the edge of the visible universe but not quite," he said. "There's more out there that we can't see with the Hubble, because we know that the wavelengths are going to be longer than what can measure."

JWSC's job will be to explore those longer wavelengths.

"We'll see farther back towards the first galaxies and stars to see how it is we get here, how it is stars are being formed nearby in our own galaxy," Mather said. "There's about a new star a year being formed in the galaxy. And finally, even how does it come that planets like Earth can exist and how many of them are like ours."

RELATED STORIES:

NASA flying high with budget approval, top priorities in place