The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will allow people to see the universe like they have never seen it before, an expert has said.
The international telescope will be the largest and most powerful ever launched into space.
It follows in the footsteps of the Hubble Space Telescope as the next great space science observatory, designed to answer questions about the universe and to make breakthrough discoveries in all fields of astronomy.
The telescope will be launched on an Ariane 5 from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana before the end of the year.
Speaking at a European Space Agency (ESA) briefing, Nasa associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said: “We are going to be able to see the universe like we have never seen it before.
“We have lots of questions about the origin of galaxies and stars and Webb can carry that promise to answer them, the possibility of answering such big questions, the civilisation-scale type of questions, the ones that not only change what we know but how we think as humans.
“In addition, one of Nasa’s key goals is of course to search for life in the universe outside of Earth.
“The questions of the origin of life keep us up at night, and it’s one that we’ve carried with us for millennia and we’re starting to answer with the powerful tools of science.
“Webb has a unique role in this pursuit and will help us look out for exoplanets – planets in orbit around their own stars. It will not only be able to analyse their orbits, but the chemical composition of their atmospheres.
“By combining these data and the data from other missions and ground observations as well, we’ll be looking to see if these planets might… show signatures of life.”
He added: “I can’t wait to find out what we’ll learn with this magnificent telescope, when it’s finally delivering on its promise.”
It is hoped that the observatory will be shipped from California to the French Guiana launch site via the Panama Canal in August, a journey expected to last around two weeks.
Asked about a launch date for the mission, Beatriz Romero, Webb project manager, Arianespace, said “we are currently consolidating all that information” on the date for the next Ariane 5 launch.
She added: “And as usual, we’ll communicate the data only a few weeks before the launch for James Webb.
“It will be not earlier than October 31, but we have an agreed launch period that spans up to early December.”
But Dr Zurbuchen explained that it could be months after the launch before the public gets to see the first images from the telescope.
He said that the first few days after launch, the tennis court-sized JWST will start to unfold, much like a “transformer”, including solar panels, the antennas, and it will take several weeks to make sure everything is as it should be.
He said: “So it really is several months after we do that.
“As we’re going to go, I think what we’re going to try to figure out is where along the journey can we give some pictures that are not at the highest resolution.
“But think of it like four to five months or so, or even six months, depending on how it all goes, that we will have the highest resolution picture.”
As well as launch services, the European Space Agency contributes to two of the four science instruments, and provides personnel to support mission operations.
The JWST’s partners are ESA, Nasa and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
Scientists from Durham University are among a team of 50 researchers from around the world taking part in the Cosmos-Webb programme, which will use JWST to survey a patch of sky near the constellation Sextans.
The cosmologists will work to map the dark matter around galaxies, with the aim of unlocking the secrets of the mysterious substance that makes up the vast majority of matter in the universe.