James Webb Space Telescope


Observing Cosmic History

The Mission

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will peer into the past to a time when new stars and developing galaxies were first beginning to form, measuring and capturing images and spectra of galaxies that formed billions of years ago.

The Webb Telescope will use its superb angular resolution and near-infrared instruments to discover and study planetary systems similar to our own, analyze the molecular composition of extrasolar planets' atmospheres, and directly image Jupiter-size planets orbiting nearby stars.

By extending our knowledge of the cosmos, the Webb Telescope will play an important role in our quest to answer the compelling questions "How did we get here?" and "Are we alone?"

Identified as a top priority for astronomy and astrophysics by the National Research Council, the Webb Telescope is a key program for NASA and the scientific community and is central to the nation's ground- and space-based astrophysics program.


The Team

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) leads an international partnership that includes the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is managing the Webb Telescope project, and the Space Telescope Science Institute is responsible for science and mission operations, as well as ground station development.

In 2002, NASA selected Northrop Grumman as prime contractor to develop the James Webb Space Telescope. Northrop Grumman will design and build the deployable sunshield, provide the spacecraft and integrate the total system.

The observatory subsystems are developed by a Northrop Grumman-led team with vast experience in developing space-based observatories:

  • Ball Aerospace provides the telescope's optical design and mirrors, and the wavefront sensing and control design and algorithms.
  • Harris Corporation integrates and tests the optical telescope.
  • ATK provides the telescope's composite structures.
Customer: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Launch Vehicle: Ariane 5


Technical Characteristics

Mission Lifetime 5 years (10-year goal)
Orbit L2 (the Second Sun-Earth Lagrange Point), 1,500,000 km from Earth
Sunshield Dimensions

Approximately 22 meters x 12 meters

Primary Mirror

6.5 meter diameter aperture

Wavelength Coverage 0.6 to >27 microns
Diffraction Limit 2.0 microns
One-year Sky Coverage 100%
Telescope Operating Temperature ~45 Kelvin (-380˚F)
Payload Mass Approximately 6,500 kg
Science First light, assembly of galaxies, birth of stars, planetary systems and the origin of life
Technology Sunshield membrane material, near-infrared and mid-infrared detectors, lightweight cryogenic mirrors, microshutter arrays, cryogenic detector readout application-specific integrated circuits, cryogenic heat switches, wavefront sensing and control, large precision cryogenic structure, and the MIRI cryocooler.

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